Avoiding a COVID-created global hunger crisis

Avoiding a COVID-created global hunger crisis
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The COVID-19 pandemic may quickly become a worldwide hunger crisis as well — adding another 130 million people to those already experiencing acute hunger. According to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), COVID-19 could double the number of people facing food crises to 265 million by the end of 2020. 

Countries with relatively abundant resources have been brought to their knees. Now the world’s attention is turning to the many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East with persistently high hunger rates. They have fewer resources to meet the costs of the pandemic, whether in health care, food security or the broader economy.  

WFP issued an urgent warning at the release of the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises: in 55 countries and territories where armed conflict and other factors has already led to extreme hunger, COVID-19 could lead to famine and death. Many other countries are also likely to have sharp increases in hunger unless global efforts prevent it.

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The United States must take immediate steps to support global and national efforts to contain the virus. COVID-19 is especially dangerous for people with immune systems weakened by malnutrition. But even beyond the illness, it is critical to prevent the projected surge in hunger-related illness and death — fueled by factors such as loss of income and livelihoods during quarantines, broken food supply chains, and potential trade disruptions.

In the short term, the priority must be immediate, urgent needs. Low-income countries need medical equipment and supplies, technical assistance and financing to stop COVID-19 and mitigate its impacts. To prevent a prolonged catastrophe, countries need food and cash assistance to meet the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable populations, including malnourished women and children. Expanding programs to prevent and treat severe malnutrition will reduce people’s susceptibility to infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

The majority of the world’s poor people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. As smallholder farmers fall sick or struggle to find supplies such as seeds, they will be unable to plant their crop. Food prices are already rising. Social distancing has reduced farmers’ and consumers’ access to food markets. In India, migrant workers have left cities to return to their villages, potentially spreading the virus. Refugee camps in Bangladesh, Jordan, and Uganda are overcrowded. Urban areas, such as Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, are already seeing riots at food distribution sites.

It is too early to predict the full economic impact of the pandemic and the efforts to contain it. But it is clear that recovery will take time. Developing countries will need ongoing support to mitigate against an increase in hunger and poverty. It is particularly important to strengthen local agriculture to avoid food shortages like those seen during the 2008 financial and food price crises. 

Finally, 370 million children are suffering further because they are not receiving nutritious school meals. While the loss of learning is significant and a huge setback, many kids in their most formative years rely on schools for food. Global and local partners are willing to step up to meet the need, but the U.S. government and other donors must provide the needed support.

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The need to rebuild offers an opportunity to rethink health systems, food and social protection systems, making them more equitable and resilient to the next shock. The use of technology and new ways of doing business can help accomplish this. Let’s build back better in ways that make the wellbeing of all people and the planet our top priorities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic vividly illustrates humanity’s vulnerabilities. The first few months have seen each country go it alone. In the U.S., each state has had to fend for itself. COVID-19 calls on people to alter our worldview and recognize that global problems require global cooperation. We need to work together, directly and through multilateral institutions, to share information, knowledge and solutions.

In an interconnected world, what we do now will benefit our own country and pay dividends into the future.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.