The Veterinarian-Humanitarian

A Cummings School and Fletcher School alum works to get U.S. aid where it’s needed to fight COVID-19, locusts, and other emergencies across the globe
Christine Jost with a number of Somali women. A Cummings School and Fletcher School alum, Jost works to get U.S. aid where it’s needed to fight COVID-19, locusts, and other emergencies across the globe
Christine Jost talks to a group of women about access to quality animal health services, while on a 2019 visit to the Somali region of Ethiopia. Photo: Courtesy of Christine Jost
May 20, 2020

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Disease. Locusts. Famine. Floods. If an international disaster sounds biblical in nature, it is all in a day’s work for Christine Jost, V96, F03.

A graduate of both Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Jost works as a senior livestock technical advisor as part of the Global Health Support Initiative III, Social Solutions International, in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). USAID’s OFDA leads and coordinates the U.S. government’s response to disasters overseas—helping countries prepare for, respond to, and recover from humanitarian emergencies.

The United States is one of largest donors of humanitarian aid in the world, and OFDA responds to an average of sixty-plus disasters in more than fifty countries every year. Its programming helps people affected by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, drought, conflict, and other crises—even pandemics. It works with non-governmental organizations and public international organizations such as United Nations organizations to help millions of people.

In April, Jost assumed a role in USAID’s fight against COVID-19 when she was appointed the technical coordinator for its OFDA COVID-19 response management team.

Tufts Now talked to Jost about what that COVID-19 response entails, as well as how her veterinary and diplomatic training are supporting other important humanitarian efforts around the world.

Tufts Now: What does the OFDA response to COVID-19 look like?

Christine Jost: USAID is concentrating its COVID-19 humanitarian response on areas of the world already experiencing humanitarian emergencies that are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic. One example is Syria, where there’s a complex humanitarian emergency ongoing and OFDA already is supporting health care for vulnerable populations.

We all have seen how health-care centers in the U.S. and elsewhere can be quickly overwhelmed by outbreaks of COVID-19. Now consider that when most people think of a health-care center, they picture a well-functioning facility with beds.

But in most of the places where OFDA works around the world—including Syria—it can be challenging to find a way to wash your hands, even within a health-care setting. Given that reality, most of our COVID-19 response funding will help ensure that people have access to basic health services while managing the additional demands created by the pandemic.

We are also starting to look at issues of food security and livelihoods related to COVID-19. There has been a lot in the news lately, even here in the U.S., about the secondary effects of the pandemic on food—including food shortages, disruptions of supply chains, and farmers being unable to get their products to the market as a result of COVID-19.

What other types of disasters is OFDA responding to?

There have been disaster declarations in four East African countries where billions of locusts have wiped out pastures and crops. We have projects responding to this crisis in three of those countries so far, with programming focused on controlling the locust populations.

Our funding has enabled the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—the FAO—to work with local governments to control the outbreak, doing things like locust detection and surveillance and insect control via both on-the-ground and aerial spraying. We’re also monitoring the livelihood implications to determine if farmers or herders need additional help, particularly now that we’re just getting into the wet season, when planting would normally begin and locust numbers are expected to increase.

Often, in such highly vulnerable places, bad situations compound one another—and the disaster response. For example, if you look at Puntland, a region in northern Somalia, several years of drought caused significant livestock losses. Then flooding caused some people to lose more livestock and other household assets. Now, people are dealing with locusts.  And, of course, there’s the threat that COVID-19 poses on top of all that.

Even supporting locust control requires a response that’s actually far more complex. For example, aerial spraying involves pilots, pesticides that may need to be imported across closed borders, airplanes. And all those components have become more difficult to bring together in the time of COVID-19.

Most people don’t think of livestock when they hear about humanitarian aid. Can you explain how animals come into play?

OFDA’s mandate is, first, to save lives; next, to reduce suffering during disasters; and, lastly, to mitigate the social and the economic impacts of disasters.

When you’re talking about a disaster such as a drought in a pastoral society, livestock interventions save lives. That’s because milk is the main source of nutrition for many pastoralists around the world. Milk is the only source of nutrition for children in some seasons.

And in livestock-keeping societies, ensuring that those animal populations are saved during a disaster—or that farmers can recover their losses—is key to reducing economic hardship and helping people get back on their feet.

What livestock programs are you working on that address such suffering?

One of the research programs we’re supporting is looking at child nutrition during drought in pastoral societies in East Africa. Tufts’ Feinstein International Center did some seminal work—the Milk Matters study—on the importance of livestock continuing to produce milk in ensuring that children don’t starve during droughts.

OFDA is now funding a study in Kenya that combines child-nutrition programming for pregnant and lactating women and young mothers with livestock interventions. Community health workers supported by UNICEF will monitor children’s health and advise mothers and mothers-to-be on appropriate nutrition, while FAO distributes animal feed during drought to keep animals lactating.

Another FAO program we are supporting is trying to change how livestock owners are affected by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and the Philippines. OFDA responds to volcanic eruptions in Southeast Asia. One of the primary reasons why people disobey evacuation orders during volcanic eruptions is because they are afraid of losing their livestock assets.  

That’s because these disasters, though very dangerous to human life, can also quickly destroy families’ livelihoods. When Mount Taal, a volcano in the Philippines, erupted in January, for example, there were fortunately no human casualties—but thousands of animals were lost. We’re working to develop strategies that account for livestock during volcano emergency response and recovery in the region.

What other work are you proud of?

Many people are familiar with the Public Health Emergency of International Concern declaration that the WHO made for COVID-19 in March. It triggered an emergency response approach that has come out of what humanitarian organizations learned from responding to outbreaks such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

It reflects a global understanding that public-health crises require established mechanisms to ensure the coordination, cooperation, communications, and funding needed for an effective international response.

OFDA now is funding a program through the FAO’s Emergency Management Centre for Animal Health to develop a parallel global coordination mechanism for animal health emergencies of international concern. The project is also improving preparedness and response capacities around the world, to increase global resilience to ongoing and future animal health threats.

Better coordination could help reduce the scale of livestock disease tragedies such as the African swine fever epizootic currently sweeping across East and Southeast Asia. Hundreds of millions of pigs have been lost to the disease or efforts to control it because there is no vaccine or treatment. OFDA is funding efforts to reduce risks related to African swine fever in Asia, as well as global coordination mechanisms to reduce the chances of something like the African swine fever epizootic happening again.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.