COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

The economic impact of coronavirus pushes millions further into hunger

A few months ago, I warned the United Nations Security Council that the world stood on the brink of a hunger pandemic. A toxic combination of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 had threatened to push 270 million people to the brink of starvation. Famine was real. It was a terrifying possibility in up to three dozen countries if we did not continue to act like we had been acting. Fortunately, since then, the world really listened. Donors and leaders all over the world responded; they acted. Countries large and small took extraordinary measures to save the lives of their citizens and support their economies, spending US$17 trillion on fiscal stimulus and central bank support. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the G20 nations threw a lifeline to the poorest nations by suspending debt repayments. That made a huge impact. With our donors’ help, the global humanitarian community launched a huge and unprecedented global fightback against the coronavirus.

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Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID
Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

The World Food Programme (WFP) is doing what we do best: adapting and innovating to meet the unique demands of the pandemic. Launching new food and cash programmes to support the hungry in urban areas. Supporting over 50 governments to scale up their safety nets and social protection programmes for the most vulnerable. Getting nutritious food to millions of schoolchildren shut out of the classroom during lockdown. Every day, we are succeeding in keeping people alive and avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe. But we are not out of the woods. This fight is far, far, far from over – the 270 million people marching towards the brink of starvation need our help today more than ever. But, without the resources we need, a wave of hunger and famine still threatens to sweep across the globe. And if it does, it will overwhelm nations and communities already weakened by years of conflict and instability.

We need everyone on board – the governments are strapped, people are strapped financially. It is time for the private sector to step up @WFPChief

The global hunger crisis, caused by conflict and now compounded by COVID-19, is moving into a new and dangerous phase – especially in nations already scarred by violence. The threat of famine is looming again, so we have to step up, not step back. As COVID-19 pushed countries everywhere to lockdown, the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs have been destroyed, and remittances have collapsed. The impact has been felt hardest by the 2 billion people who work in the informal economy around the world – mainly in middle- and low-income countries – who are already only one day’s work away from going hungry; in other words, living hand to mouth. 

It is critically important that we balance sensible measures to contain the spread of the virus with the need to keep borders open and supply chains going and trade flows moving. We also have to be vigilant and guard against unintended consequences, which could hit the poorest people the hardest. In fact, in the 80-odd countries that we are in, we are working with the presidents, the prime ministers, the ministers of government, dealing with issues that are popping up because of quarantines and lockdowns, distribution points. We are all learning from this and making headway.

The world stands on the brink of a hunger pandemic. A toxic combination of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 has threatened to push 270 million people to the brink of starvation @WFPChief

Let me just give you a couple of examples, because a lot of people thought that the virus would be even more deadly in Africa. It is definitely impacting Africa, but the good news is that it has not been as deadly – but it has been devastating in other ways. For example, the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine has analysed the closure of vaccination clinics in Africa during lockdown. It calculated that, for every COVID-19 death prevented, as many as 80 children may die due to a lack of routine immunisations.

There is a grave danger that many more people will die from the broader economic and social consequences of COVID-19 than from the virus itself, especially in Africa. And the last thing we need is to have the cure be worse than the disease itself.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conflict and instability had already forced 15.5 million people into crisis levels of food insecurity. These are people on the brink of starvation. The latest assessment indicates that the upsurge in violence, coupled with COVID-19, has sent this total skyrocketing to nearly 22 million people – an increase of 6.5 million people. 

There is a grave danger that many more people will die from the broader economic and social consequences of COVID-19 than from the virus itself, especially in Africa. And the last thing we need is to have the cure be worse than the disease itself @WFPChief

In Nigeria, COVID-19 is also forcing more people into food insecurity. Analysis shows measures imposed to contain the virus reduced incomes in 80% of households. You can imagine the devastation with that alone. In the north-east of the country, 4.3 million people are food insecure, up by 600 000, largely due to COVID-19, while in the large urban area of Kano, the number of food-insecure people during the lockdown period from March to June went from 568 000 to 1.5 million people – an increase of 1 million people. Very troubling. In South Sudan, the outlook is similarly worrying: even before the pandemic, 6.5 million people were expected to face severe food insecurity at the height of the lean season, made worse by the violence in Jonglei State in recent months. This has resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, a large number of abducted women and children, and widespread loss of livestock and livelihoods. In addition, virus outbreaks in urban areas such as Juba could put as many as another 1.6 million people at risk of starvation. Finally, I want to highlight the disaster unfolding in Burkina Faso, driven by the upsurge in violence. The number of people facing crisis levels of hunger has tripled to 3.3 million people, as COVID-19 compounds the situation… displacement, security and access problems. For 11 000 of these people living in the northern provinces, famine is knocking on the door as we speak.

We have made huge strides forward in spotting the early warning signs of famine, and in understanding its causes and consequences. But, tragically, we have seen this story play out too many times before. The world stands by until it is too late, while hunger kills, it stokes community tensions, fuels conflict and instability, and forces families from their homes.

I recently learned that, in Latin America, hungry families have started hanging white flags outside their houses to show they need help. And there are a lot of them: 17.1 million severely food-insecure people today, compared with 4.5 million only six or seven months ago. A white flag is the sign of surrender – of giving up. Well, we cannot and we must not surrender, or tell ourselves there is nothing we can do, because millions of people around the world desperately need our help. 

We need everyone on board – the governments are strapped, people are strapped financially. It is time for the private sector to step up. We need US$4.9 billion to feed, for one year, all 30 million people who will die without the WFP’s assistance. Worldwide, there are over 2 000 billionaires with a net worth of US$8 trillion. In my home country, the USA, there are 12 individuals alone worth US$1 trillion. In fact, reports state that three of them made billions upon billions during COVID-19! I am not opposed to people making money, but humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes. It is time for those who have the most to step up and to help those who have the least, in this extraordinary time in world history.

This piece is adapted from the remarks delivered by David Beasley during a virtual session of the UN Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (segment on food security risks in DRC, Yemen, north-east Nigeria and South Sudan). The full remarks are available at: https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-chief-warns-grave-dangers-economic-impact-coronavirus-millions-are-pushed-further-hunger

Dr David Beasley is executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP). 

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