‘We don’t have the virus, but the pandemic is killing us’: Coronavirus has worsened hunger around the world

While North America and Europe were able to cushion the blow of coronavirus, food insecurity in other parts of the world became much worse, writes Anthony Faiola

Sunday 18 July 2021 00:00 BST
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A woman gathers wood near a discarded campaign poster in the Lima slum of Goshen City
A woman gathers wood near a discarded campaign poster in the Lima slum of Goshen City (The Washington Post)

Up a narrow hillside populated by thin, snarling dogs and the grief-stricken mourners of the coronavirus pandemic, another plague has befallen the slum where 5-year-old Milinka and 8-year-old Luis Miguel sleep in one room with their parents.

Hunger.

Worsening inequality, as poorer people and nations lose years of gains in the battle against hunger and poverty, is likely to be one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic. New data released by the United Nations on Monday illustrate the unequal impact as measured by access to a basic human necessity: food.

Global hunger shot up by an estimated 118 million people worldwide in 2020, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, jumping to 768 million people – the highest figure going at least as far back as 2006. The number of people living with food insecurity – those forced to compromise on food quantity or quality – surged by 318 million, to 2.38 billion.

In North America and Europe, formal employment, social safety nets and the widespread availability of remote work cushioned the blow. In those parts of the world, the percentage of people living with food insecurity edged up from 7.7 per cent to 8.8 per cent. But the developing world, home to billions of informal workers, with significant gaps in government assistance, fared far worse.

Asia and Africa are home to the majority of people in the world who are food-insecure. But the region hit hardest by the coronavirus – Latin America and the Caribbean – saw the biggest one-year spike in food insecurity: a jump of nine percentage points, to 40.9 per cent. Here and elsewhere in the developing world, a still-chronic shortage of vaccines, as fresh waves of the virus send caseloads soaring, is now projected to worsen access to food this year.

The doctor told me to feed them more. But with what money? With what food?

“The developed world had the advantage of being formal economies, where if you do a lockdown, people have access to unemployment insurance or social aid,” says Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist of the UN food agency. “That did not happen in much of the developing world. You saw the middle class move into poverty, and the poor move into severe food insecurity.”

Few countries witnessed a bigger surge than Peru. Once a global success story – it capitalised on the commodities boom to halve poverty and malnutrition over the past two decades – the coronavirus-plagued South American nation is now a study in deepening inequality. New national data show a spike in poverty from 20 per cent to 30 per cent in just one year, as the poor lost far more of their wealth than the rich.

The economy is rebounding now; the acclaimed cevicherias of Lima’s moneyed Miraflores district are filling up again with well-heeled diners sipping pisco sours. But the plight of the poor is getting worse.

In Goshen City, the slum named for the biblical land the Jews fled in Exodus, Milinka and Luis Miguel’s father, a motorcycle taxi driver, and mother, a toy-factory worker who lost her job in the pandemic, saw their income collapse last year. They’re now surviving on about $9 a day. Most of that goes to cover water, electricity, gas, and mobile data so that their children can tune in to virtual classes. They lunch at a “communal pot” – a makeshift food station of the sort now popping up across poor quarters of the capital, where destitute neighbours are pooling and sharing meagre rations.

The parents give their children food off their own plates. Still, that often means a dinner of only bread and water. In March, Milinka stopped playing with her Hello Kitty doll on the dirt floor; she spent long spells sitting languidly in a corner with a mouth infection. Luis Miguel lost interest in the football games he played on a muddy field near a sheer cliff.

A Peruvian man waits at the window of a communal kitchen in an impoverished neighbourhood in Lima
A Peruvian man waits at the window of a communal kitchen in an impoverished neighbourhood in Lima (The Washington Post)

“We thought they were just depressed, but we took them to the clinic and found out they have anaemia,” says their mother, Marimar Avila, 27.

“The doctor told me to feed them more. But with what money? With what food? We don’t have the virus, but the pandemic is killing us.”

In the United States, Covid-19 is fading, leaving an unexpected economic boon as home values soar and savings balloon. Yet in large swaths of the developing world, where vaccine distribution grossly lags behind that in wealthier nations, relentless new surges are rekindling the scourge of hunger.

The pandemic spike in hunger, the largest in at least 20 years, is dealing another setback to a fight that the world was once winning. After years of gains, efforts against food insecurity began running into headwinds in the mid-2010s amid economic stagnation, global conflicts, and climate-change-driven droughts and floods. The pandemic has made the challenge still more difficult.

The jump is not as severe as some officials predicted early last year, largely because the coronavirus had not hit Asia – and to a lesser extent, Africa – as hard as had been feared. But that could change this year as the virus has taken deeper root in both regions.

The world’s worst food crises remain where they have long been: in conflict zones and fragile states, from Ethiopia to Haiti. But Latin America – a largely middle-income region with some of the most Covid-ravaged nations on Earth – suffered the biggest relative increase in food insecurity, underscoring the power of the pandemic to send nations careening down the ladder of development after decades spent climbing up it.

In Peru, the country with the world’s highest Covid death rate per capita, poverty and childhood malnutrition were cut in half over the past two decades. University enrolment soared. So great was its progress that experts predicted it would end the decade as a high-income nation.

Rosel Ccatamayo and his wife, Marimar Avila, stand in an area near their home in Lima
Rosel Ccatamayo and his wife, Marimar Avila, stand in an area near their home in Lima (The Washington Post)

That goal has receded as the pandemic has generated a host of negative indicators – including jumps in maternal mortality in childbirth, HIV deaths, and university dropout rates – that are set to reverberate for years.

“Many of the people facing a lack of access to food are the same ones who started having a better quality of life; some, even in the middle class, who’d achieved a good status in life, maybe even a car,” says America Arias, Peru director of the charity Action Against Hunger. “During the pandemic, they lost all their income. It became a question of survival.”

Across town from the slum where Milinka and Luis Miguel live, Lima’s San Martin de Porres district stands as a comparative promised land. An aspirational, working-class neighbourhood, it boasted one of the first shopping malls beyond Lima’s fashionable neighbourhoods. It has a McDonald’s. Even a Popeyes.

Now, the pandemic’s socioeconomic victims are gathering at its soup kitchen, where the daily diners are topping 100 – up from about 60 before the pandemic. The newcomers fell fast and deep.

On a recent afternoon, Juan Tarazona, 57, arrived with plastic containers to take home soup and stew for himself and his wife. His 30-year-old company – a small-scale manufacturer of kitchen stoves – “basically died in the pandemic”, he says.

“Do you know what it’s like to spend your whole life working, building a company, and then to end up here?” Tarazona asks, his voice breaking as he fights back tears. “What am I going to do now? My savings are gone. How am I going to rebuild?”

Marimar Avila sits with her son, Luis Miguel, during his virtual schooling on June 9 as her daughter, Milinka, jumps on a bed in the family’s shack in Lima’s Goshen City
Marimar Avila sits with her son, Luis Miguel, during his virtual schooling on June 9 as her daughter, Milinka, jumps on a bed in the family’s shack in Lima’s Goshen City (The Washington Post)

Beatriz Munoz, a 45-year-old caregiver for the elderly who was fired in the pandemic without severance, picks up food for her daughter, who is battling a brain tumour. The rush of Covid patients has made access to hospitals and doctors impossible; as a result, cancer deaths have shot up.

Munoz says her daughter hasn’t been able to see a doctor in over 10 months.

“Our lives are about fear now,” she says. “Fear of if we’ll eat. Fear of how long it will be before she can see a doctor again.”

It did not, perhaps, have to be this bad.

Peru has weathered a brutal period of political instability during the pandemic, going through three presidents in November and a bitterly disputed presidential election last month that remains unresolved.

Whether Pedro Castillo or Keiko Fujimori is eventually named the winner, the president’s options for fighting the coronavirus will be limited.

Her husband, a carpenter, was laid off in the pandemic; he left Lima for the countryside to look for work on a road crew

“A lockdown might work in developed countries, but not here, because the population is not digitalised and the government was simply unable to replace their income,” says Javier Diaz-Albertini, who studies poverty at the University of Lima. “In Peru, everything just stopped. For four months, we didn’t even have mail.”

For a while, Peru even shut down its key mining sector – a move that neighbouring Chile, which witnessed a shallower economic blow, avoided.

“The lesson we’ve learned is that governments need to open their eyes and adjust their thinking in a crisis, and in some cases, like Peru, they just didn’t,” says Torero of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. “They had the money available to deal with the problem. But they imposed restrictions on movement blindly, and did not find a way to help the people who needed it. They didn’t realise such a huge number of people would lose everything as a result.”

The government did move to aid the poor, through cash handouts and food distribution – but critics say they failed to reach enough people compared to similar, more successful efforts in neighbouring Brazil. None of a dozen residents interviewed in Goshen City say they received any government aid.

Poverty programmes here, as in much of Latin America, have traditionally been geared largely towards rural areas, making the pandemic spike in urban poverty now particularly hard to address.

Silvana Vargas, Peru’s minister of social inclusion, says the pandemic has exposed the fragility of the gains against poverty made in recent years. The vast majority of Peruvians are still informal workers, many living just above the poverty line. But she defends the government’s response, saying it has prevented millions more Peruvians from falling into poverty.

“The effort made by the Peruvian state has been enormous, especially given a completely unexpected situation,” she says.

Liana Ayala Gonzalez, 8, is handed a school notebook as her sister Adriana Gonzalez, 11, sleeps in the back of their father’s motorcycle taxi in Lima
Liana Ayala Gonzalez, 8, is handed a school notebook as her sister Adriana Gonzalez, 11, sleeps in the back of their father’s motorcycle taxi in Lima (The Washington Post)

“How much are the potatoes?” Avila asks.

The merchant in the covered market, a 20-minute walk downhill from her shack, gives a price a few cents more than she paid last week.

“They’re so small,” she says, holding one. “They’re so small.”

A jump in global food prices – they rose in May at their fastest monthly rate in more than a decade, due to weather issues and surging demand in China – has made it harder to feed her children. At their local market, the prices of cooking oil, corn, flour, chicken and fish have all jumped by double digits since January.

“We can’t make the math work,” she says.

As Avila walks back up the hill carrying eggs, rice and potatoes for their biggest meal of the week – Sunday dinner – a neighbour, Isabel Quispe, 49, waves down a foreign journalist.

“Please, help,” she says. “We need food.”

Beatriz Munoz watches her daughter Rosario Flores, 26, climb the stairs to her bedroom at their home in Lima
Beatriz Munoz watches her daughter Rosario Flores, 26, climb the stairs to her bedroom at their home in Lima (The Washington Post)

Quispe cooks for her neighbours at a communal pot, typically with donated food. The day before, their stocks were dry, so one neighbour dug into her pockets and bought potatoes and onions.

Quispe has five households in the neighbourhood to feed – about 18 people.

“We don’t have enough,” she pleads.

She is not only worried about her next meal.

Her 19-year-old son – “my great hope,” she calls him – had to drop out of a technical university last year. He was studying computer programming. Her husband, a carpenter, was laid off in the pandemic; he left Lima for the countryside to look for work on a road crew.

But he has yet to send money home, and she still can’t afford her son’s books or tuition. Peru’s university dropout rate jumped last year to 16.2 per cent, up from 12.6 per cent in 2019.

“They say the economy is getting better, and maybe that’s true for the people in Miraflores,” Quispe says. “But here, we are going hungry, and nobody is coming to help.”

© The Washington Post

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