Coronavirus will almost double hunger by end of 2020: UN

A woman collects food in Deir Hafer, 60 km from Aleppo in Syria. WFP is working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to distribute food to the most vulnerable and ensure that families are aware of COVID-19 and safety measures. Photo: WFP/Khudr Alissa

The number of people facing acute food insecurity could jump to 265 million, according to a new report by the World Food Programme (WFP).

WFP is the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security.

Latest numbers indicate the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.

That is nearly double the number in the newly published Global Report on Food Crises 2020, which estimates that 135 million people in 55 countries currently face acute hunger as a result chiefly of conflict, the effects of climate change, and economic crises. That report was drawn up prior to the emergence of COVID-19 as a pandemic, and the contrasting figures provide a startling insight into the devastating potential of this virus.

“We all need to come together to deal with this because if we don’t the cost will be too high – the global cost will be too high: many lost lives and many, many more lost livelihoods,” said Arif Husain, chief economist and director of research, assessment and monitoring at the WFP.

Concern is highest for those in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, as the virus threatens lives and livelihoods along with the trading networks they rely on for survival.

The greatest worry is for people living in conflict zones and those forced from their homes and into refugee camps, with countries of concern including northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

“These are the people I’m most worried about,” said Husain. “They did not need COVID-19. Even without it their lives were hanging by a thread. They literally depend on us for their lives. If we cannot get to them for any reason they end up paying the ultimate price. We need to prioritize the people and make sure we’re there. Because if it’s not us, it’s no one else.”

Trade barriers like export bans are extremely counterproductive and often backfire: “Hoarding food supplies or putting up trade barriers does not work. Starving your neighbour is not good policy. We have seen this many times in the food and fuel crisis in 2008 and in the financial crisis of 2009. Again in the food crises of 2010 and 2012. It’s better to facilitate trade and let it flow across the world.”
Countries with large public debt will struggle to mobilize the resources to respond to the crisis, while others — most strikingly Zimbabwe — will have problems replenishing low currency reserves. In the Middle East, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria all face severe economic problems.

Husain describes the potential impact on food-insecure people in urban areas as hugely concerning, with the urban middle class, daily wage earners and those who work in the informal and service sectors suddenly becoming vulnerable to poverty and hunger.

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