Geographies in Depth

COVID-19 is creating a hunger catastrophe in India – here's an opportunity to break the cycle

A homeless woman holding a child waits to receive food during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Kolkata, India, April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri - RC2YWF9E1LI6

Solutions must both address food insecurity and provide livelihood opportunities for vulnerable people. Image: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
Megha Bhargava
Joint Commissioner Income Tax, Ministry of Finance, Government of India
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SDG 01: No Poverty

  • COVID-19 has exacerbated hunger and poverty worldwide, especially in India.
  • The crisis highlights the importance of putting relief directly into the hands of vulnerable people.
  • Solutions must address both immediate food insecurity and provide livelihood opportunities so as to break the cycle of hunger and poverty.

COVID-19 has proven to be not only a health crisis, but also a livelihood crisis – quickly turning into a hunger and malnutrition catastrophe.

The pandemic has led to increase in global food insecurity, affecting vulnerable households in almost every country. It has exacerbated existing inequalities, pushing millions of people into the vicious cycles of economic stagnation, loss of livelihood and worsening food insecurity.

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The World Bank estimates that 71 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty across the globe as a result of the pandemic. The World Food Programme estimates that an additional 130 million people could fall into the category of “food insecure” over and above the 820 million who were classified as such by the 2019 State of Food Insecurity in the World Report.

Pandemic's fallout will mean more undernourished people for years to come
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating hunger worldwide. Image: Bloomberg/FAO

As the deadly second wave ravages India, individual states have imposed lockdowns and strict restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. During the first phase, the plight and misery of the migrant workers and other vulnerable communities was laid bare. But this time, the health crisis has overwhelmed the existing livelihood and hunger crisis which still looms large in most of our towns and villages.

The CMIE Unemployment Data reveals a grim picture, with rural unemployment spiralling to 14.34% and urban unemployment reaching 14.71% as of 16 May 2021. In a country where a majority of the workforce is in informal sector, people have been massively affected due to loss of jobs and the lack of access to the benefits (including social security) that come with formal employment. The daily wagers, construction workers, street vendors and domestic helpers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and lockdowns and are living a life of uncertainty and disrupted incomes. Agriculture is the primary occupation in the villages, but due to frequent lockdowns, there has been a disruption of supply chains and access to market for the sale of agricultural produce, impacting the income of rural households. And while there is no gender-disaggregated data on the impact of COVID-19 specifically on women, experience shows women are disproportionately affected during pandemics, economic downturns and times of food insecurity.

In the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 94th out of 107 countries. The pandemic and resulting unemployment has made India’s hunger crisis worse. The First Phase of the National Family Health Survey (2019-2020) has revealed alarming findings, with as many as 16 states showing an increase in underweight and severely wasted children of under the age of 5. The pandemic is becoming a nutrition crisis, due to overburdened healthcare systems, disrupted food patterns and income loss, along with the disruption of programmes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal.

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The crisis highlights the importance of the existing welfare schemes like Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Public Distribution System (PDS) and Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), which put cash and relief directly into the hands of the most vulnerable people to help them ride out the economic distress. It is imperative to improve food security by increasing local food production and strengthening food supply chains. The availability of high food stocks presents an opportunity for universal PDS, which is much needed. As many young people who were the breadwinners of their families have succumbed to the virus during the second wave, it is of utmost importance that support is provided to these families with adequate cash, food support and employment opportunities to prevent them from slipping further below the poverty line.

Since the onset of the pandemic, a plethora of civil society organisations have risen to the occasion to provide humanitarian relief. We founded Samarpann (www.samarpann.org) to provide sustainable solutions for health, education, food and livelihood for the most marginalised communities in the rural and tribal areas of India.

During the first wave of COVID-19 during March-June 2020, we distributed 2.5 million meals across six states in India to daily wagers, migrant workers and slum dwellers when livelihood and incomes had stalled completely because of the lockdown. When, along with our team, we visited the villages in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Kashmir, we realised that nothing had changed for these families in the second wave as compared to the first wave, other than more people falling sick and families losing loved ones due to lack of timely medical aid. Though we are providing immediate relief in the form of rations and sanitation kits, it is important to start rebuilding the lives of these families, especially those who have lost their earning members. Hence, we are purchasing food relief material from the Self Help Groups (SHGs) in order to increase their sources of income and provide the same material as aid to the marginalised in the community itself. We believe that the solution to the hunger crisis should follow a two-pronged approach of addressing food insecurity as well as providing livelihood opportunities to the people whose voices have largely been left unheard in this second wave.

COVID-19 presents both a challenge in our long-standing problems with food security and nutrition ­– and an opportunity to address it. The need of the hour is to come up with sustainable solutions which help us not only tide over the current crisis but also lift millions of people out of the cycle of hunger and poverty.

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Geographies in DepthHealth and Healthcare Systems
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