Health and Healthcare Systems

Coronavirus could trigger a hunger pandemic – unless urgent action is taken

A worker carries a sack of wheat flour at a World Food Programme food aid distribution center in Sanaa, Yemen February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah - RC2GYE9AYX0I

Food could be in short supply due to the pandemic. Image: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Harry Kretchmer
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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COVID-19

  • The coronavirus pandemic is projected to raise the number of people suffering acute hunger this year to 265 million, according to the UN World Food Programme.
  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres says the crisis is a “call to action”, and that more aid is urgently needed.

“Hanging by a thread”. That’s how the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Senior Economist, Arif Husain, described millions of people who don’t have enough food – and that was before the impact of the coronavirus.

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He’s worried that COVID-19 could disrupt food supplies to such an extent that it pushes the most vulnerable “over the edge”.

So how likely are these outcomes? And what can the world do to help?

The number of people affected by acute food insecurity in 2019 is expected to double this year.
The number of people affected by acute food insecurity in 2019 is expected to double this year. Image: WFP

Potential catastrophe

The WFP defines ‘food insecurity’ as “the lack of secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal human growth and development and an active and healthy life.”

Or as WFP Executive Director, David Beasley, vividly puts it: “821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry”.

But despite this they’re not his main worry here. Instead, it’s people in ‘acute food insecurity’ – where lack of food is “of a severity that threatens lives, livelihoods or both” – who could be the collateral damage of COVID-19. Beasley warns that the world is “on the brink of a hunger pandemic”.

There were 135 million people in low and middle-income countries in acute food insecurity last year. That figure could almost double to reach 265 million in 2020, according to the WFP’s recent Global Report on Food Crises (produced with 15 other humanitarian and development partners). And the coronavirus is largely to blame.

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The coronavirus factor

COVID-19 “is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage”, says WFP’s Arif Husain. “Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs.

“It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge”.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Warning from history

The UN acknowledges that, so far, food supplies have held up relatively well during the pandemic.

However that could change. The WFP’s latest projections, contained in its Global Report on Food Crises, draw on lessons from the recent past.

In 2008, for instance, as the impacts of the global banking crisis took hold, there were food price riots and strikes over prices in more than a dozen countries as availability and supplies were hit.

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Another concern is the behaviour of markets and individuals as coronavirus responses by ‘breadbasket’ nations disrupt global supply chains and cause panic buying.

“What if bulk buyers think they can’t get wheat or rice shipments in May or June? That is what could lead to a global food supply crisis,” said a grain market analyst from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

A man attempts to fend-off a swarm of desert locusts at a ranch near the town of Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya, February 21, 2020. Picture taken February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner - RC219F9SLHNL
Crop pests like these locusts in Kenya are contributing to the ‘perfect storm’ of factors creating acute food insecurity. Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Most at risk

So who could be most at risk from this COVID-19 fallout if the worst does come to pass?

Sadly it is those who are currently most vulnerable – those already “hanging by a thread”. The WFP report identifies the 32 countries who needed the most food aid in 2019 – they are in the spotlight now.

“The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict,” says the WFP’s David Beasley.

Alongside Syria, Yemen is a particular cause for concern. The WFP describes it as already being “the world’s worst food crisis”.

Now, it says the combined effects of conflict, macroeconomic crisis, climate-related shocks and crop pests – particularly desert locusts – create the potential for a perfect storm.

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Time for action

Hand-wringing is clearly not enough. UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, says the WFP report must be a “call to action”.

“We have the tools and the know-how. What we need is political will and sustained commitment by leaders and nations.” But what does that look like?

The first priority, the WFP says, is money – to build up food and cash stockpiles in the most at-risk counties.

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Aid donors are being asked to fast-track $1.9 billion that has already been pledged, and an extra $350 million is needed rapidly to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to get the food where it’s needed.

Some of the world’s largest food companies are also urging governments to take action by keeping borders open and not responding to COVID-19 by locking down food supplies.

Economists and leading political figures are also contributing to the debate, urging world leaders to assist the poorest with their fights against the coronavirus, or else pay the price.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsFood and WaterIndustries in Depth
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