THERE is a general consensus that the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world and changed the priorities of people and nations. The luxury or rhetoric for political consumption in the past has today become a necessity.
For decades, food and industrial security was merely ink on paper in the government data and plans of most countries; in fact, majority of them overlooked the urgency of self-sustenance policies after falling in the trap of cheap imports of food and medical products that do not conform to the international standards.
This occurred at a time when the importers and traders advanced ahead of manufacturers and farmers, rendering the buck to stop with them when it comes to directing the economic policies of the countries.
Today the world is facing the true test in terms of self-sufficiency. Suddenly, this pandemic has made the previously-insignificant matter into everyone’s main concern today.
We do not exaggerate when we say that a simple crisis in Kuwait few years ago passed unnoticed and no one learned from it. This crisis was unfortunately related to scarcity of onions in the market and its high prices. What had actually happened?
The government succumbed to the onion and vegetable mafias who control the food market through imports with which they flood the market. At times, they monopolize such products in order to raise the prices. At the same time, successive governments did not do enough to encourage the local farmers.
The outcome in this regard is waking up to the onion crisis in the last few days. This makes us wonder how the situation has come to this, while at some point the Kuwaiti farmers were forced to throw their products in the street because the mafia flooded the local markets.
The governments had distributed farms to citizens with the aim of cultivating these farms for achieving food security or rather self-sufficiency. Instead, these farming plots were turned into villas, palaces, and resorts, and did not achieve the desired goal.
Similar is the case with livestock barns, which were also transformed into leisure areas. This encouraged the import movement, starting from tomato seeds to livestock.
Things are not any better in the industrial sector. The manufacturers fought to the point of strangulation because some trader was able to bribe officials in State institutions. The standard of the products were thus tailored to suit the specifications of the briber and not the need of the country. The local industries were not encouraged, especially in manufacturing health and medical supplies in Kuwait.
The importers deliberately bribed officials, even the ministers, throughout the past decades in order to sideline the products of these local factories. Unfortunately, this fact is still eluding the minds of many officials, planners and decision-makers in the State. We have therefore fallen under a lot of burden in the process of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, which is a great test if we learn from it, or else it will pass as a nightmare on a sweltering day and make us return back to square one.
When the State of Qatar was boycotted by four regional countries, many assumed it will starve, and its people will suffer in finding something to eat. However, Qatar resorted to establishing food production projects, building cattle farms, etc. It managed to rely on itself for providing dairy products and food items in general. It formed economic and military alliances to protect itself.
The outcome of such a drastic move was that Qatar managed to overcome the boycott crisis to the extent that the people in that country did not feel the shortage of necessary food and medical supplies. This was an opportunity to learn the lesson.
Indeed, we are currently witnessing major countries, such as the United States of America, resorting to smaller countries to obtain medical supplies. In the past, the USA exercised the policy of master-follower, but now it has resorted to the confiscation of shipments of protective masks and artificial respirators. This is happening because the USA did not care about this industrial sector. However, it is not alone in this, as many countries have resorted to confiscating or rather hijacking medical shipments such as Turkey and Mexico among others. It is as if the world is saying, “After I leave, all hell will break loose.”
Even today, the horizon seems to be a dead-end, and there are no indications that this pandemic will end soon.
Therefore, isn’t it expected that countries will suspend the export of food and medical supplies under the pretext that they need them for their people?
What will the Gulf Cooperation Council countries do after they fail to store their green produce for the rainy days? Will the GCC countries learn the lesson and reconsider its approach towards farming and manufacturing by encouraging local production? Or will the traders and importers continue bribing the officials in ministries, as if no crisis has ever befallen?
Isn’t it time to apply common sense and allow the prevalence of supreme interest of the country over personal and selfish interests?
By Ahmed Al-Jarallah
Editor-in-Chief, the Arab Times