By the end of this year, more than a quarter of a billion people around the world will go hungry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to experts at the United Nations.
Currently, 135 million people in 55 low- and middle-income countries, particularly across the arid regions of Africa and the Middle East, are suffering from acute hunger, according to the Global Report on Food Crises 2020 — a paper compiled prior to the epidemic and published Monday.
In an addendum to their report, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) now estimates that number may double to 265 million as the impact of the pandemic and a rapidly changing climate take hold.
“The scenario in poor countries is too gruesome to comprehend,” said WFP chief economist Arif Husain in a statement. “We need to get ready for the second and the third wave of this disease. People are losing their livelihoods and their incomes and, at the same time, supply chains are disrupted. This translates into a double whammy which has both the breadth and the depth of hunger increasing around the world.”
The global economic downturn will be catastrophic for the already impoverished, but it also threatens livelihoods across the socioeconomic spectrum, especially the urban middle class and daily wage earners.
The WFP says they’re especially concerned with “conflict zones,” such as northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, where many have been forced from their homes and into refugee camps, which are rife with crowded living conditions and malnutrition that create a “fertile ground” for a pathogen. Cramped and unsanitary urban slums are also at a high risk for exposure.
“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.”
Countries such as these rely on international trade flow, which has faced considerable disruption since the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2018, arid Somalia and South Sudan imported 40 million tons of grains to supplement the gaps in their local food production. By contrast, the US alone produced some 431.6 million tons of cereals, mostly corn, between 2018 and 2019, according to the International Grains Council.
“It’s critical that commercial trade continues to flow regardless of anything else taking place around it,” warns Husain. “Because if that stops, the humanitarian work cannot happen.”
Countries across Asia and Eurasia have restricted the export of various grains, including rice, rye, soybeans and wheat, Reuters reported. Hussein calls out measures by some countries to disrupt global supply lines.
“Hoarding food supplies or putting up trade barriers does not work,” he said. “Starving your neighbor 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.”
Meanwhile, oil-producing countries such Angola and Nigeria are taking a major economic hit as oil prices see record lows. And indebted countries will be crippled by the global economic downturn.
The WFP is constantly monitoring food security in the most vulnerable countries — made publicly available through their Hunger Map Live and Hunger Analytics Hub — and working with local governments to make their food and medical supply chains more sustainable and mutually beneficial across threatened regions.
They have requested $350 million per the Global Humanitarian Response Plan to COVID-19, and anticipate a need for a total of at least $12 billion throughout 2020.
“The more we wait, the more disruption there is to supply chains, the more expensive it would be both economically and in lost lives,” added Husain.