Coronavirus pandemic ‘may cause famine of biblical proportions’, UN food chief warns

Covid-19 could push 130 million people into starvation

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 22 April 2020 13:07 BST
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Migrant labourers get tea and refreshment at a camp set up by Delhi Government, after the fear of lockdown-induced hunger sparked an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people
Migrant labourers get tea and refreshment at a camp set up by Delhi Government, after the fear of lockdown-induced hunger sparked an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people

The coronavirus pandemic will cause multiple famines “of biblical proportions within a few short months”, the chief of the UN’s food relief agency has warned, plunging tens of millions into starvation unless immediate action is taken.

World Food Programme (WFP) executive director David Beasley said that even before the arrival of Covid-19, he had been warning world leaders 2020 would bring “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two”.

An annual WFP report published on Tuesday estimated that 135 million people face “crisis-level” hunger 2020, with Mr Beasley telling the UN security council that deepening crises such as those in Yemen and Syria, more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns meant the world was “already facing a perfect storm”.

But these forecasts were produced before the pandemic – which Mr Beasley warned could push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation.

An introductory section of the fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises, dedicated to Covid-19, warns the pandemic could devastate livelihoods and food security, especially in already fragile contexts, while a global recession would majorly disrupt food supply chains.

The 55 countries which the report had focused on before the outbreak struck are still the most vulnerable to the consequences of Covid-19, according to the WFP.

“These countries may face an excruciating trade-off between saving lives or livelihoods or, in a worst-case scenario, saving people from the corona virus to have them die from hunger,” the report states.

But the agency also warned the pandemic may drive up food insecurity in other nations – for instance, Small Island Developing States and oil-exporting countries, which are often net importers of food, with populations dependent on income from tourism or money sent home by migrant family members.

Movement restrictions necessary to prevent the virus’ spread will likely disrupt the transport and processing of food, leading to declines in crop and livestock production and sales and dangerously reduce the availability of even the most basic food items, the report states.

Meanwhile, rising unemployment as a result of lockdowns could severely diminish some people’s purchasing power, driving down demand for higher quality products amid rising food prices as a result of protectionist policies, depreciating currencies and a lack of agricultural labour.

Furthermore, the virus could create the conditions for fresh or renewed conflicts as it erodes livelihoods and spreads fear, possibly inflaming tensions between refugee and host communities, or escalating discrimination against foreign workers.

Despite the increased potential for violent crises, the pandemic is likely to have “significant repercussions” for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, diverting resources and limiting the mobility of both staff and emergency supplies, the WFP warned.

The WFP currently provides food to nearly 100 million people on any given day, including “about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive”.

Mr Beasley, who is recovering from Covid-19, said if those 30 million people cannot be reached, “our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period” – and that doesn’t include increased starvation due to the coronavirus.

“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation,” he said.

According to WFP, the 10 countries with the worst food crises in 2019 were Yemen, Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti.

The report urged “rapid collective action” to prevent a “hunger pandemic”.

It recommended expanding monitoring systems to provide up-to-date information on the impacts of the outbreak on food security and livelihoods, health, access to services, markets and supply chains.

Using this information to identify the most at-risk countries, authorities should ensure emergency food supplies and humanitarian assistance are preserved for the most vulnerable groups, according to the report.

The UN agency also urged countries to scale up support for local food markets and regional supply chains to halt their collapse, advocating for trade corridors to remain open.

“The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast,” Mr Beasley said.

“If we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.

“I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programmes necessary to make certain the Covid-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe.”​

Additional reporting by AP

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