World on brink of a hunger pandemic, says UN food agency chief


As the world is dealing with the coronavirus, officially COVID-19, pandemic, the head of the UN food agency warned Tuesday that, the world is also “on the brink of a hunger pandemic” that could lead to “multiple famines of biblical proportions” within a few months if immediate action isn’t taken.

World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley told the UN Security Council that even before COVID-19 became an issue, he was telling world leaders “2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.” That is because of wars in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, locust swarms in Africa, frequent natural disasters and economic crises including in Lebanon, Congo, Sudan and Ethiopia, he said.

More than a billion

Beasley said today 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, a further 135 million people are facing “crisis levels of hunger or worse,” and a new WFP analysis shows that as a result of COVID-19 an additional 130 million people “could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020.”

He said in the video briefing that WFP is providing food to nearly 100 million people on any given day, including “about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive.”

300,000 may starve to death daily

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 does not include increased starvation due to the coronavirus.

Famine in three dozen countries

“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.

Beasley said in many countries the food crisis is the result of conflict.

But he said he raised the prospect of “a hunger pandemic” because “there is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.”

The WFP chief said lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to major income losses for the working poor.

He pointed to a sharp drop in overseas remittances that will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal and Somalia; a loss of tourism revenue which, for example, will damage Ethiopia where it accounts for 47 percent of total exports; and the collapse of oil prices which will have a significant impact in lower-income countries like South Sudan where oil accounts for almost 99 percent of total exports.

As the UN’s logistics backbone, Beasley said WFP has played a major role in tackling COVID-19 by delivering millions of pieces of protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO) and by running humanitarian air services to get doctors, nurses and humanitarian staff into countries that need help.

He urged greater humanitarian access, coordinated action to deliver aid, an end to trade disruptions, and accelerated and increased funding including $350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep supply chains running worldwide.

“The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely — and let’s act fast,” Beasley said. “I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe.”

COVID-19 will almost double acute hunger by end of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic will see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger by the end of the year, according to new figures from the WFP.

Latest numbers indicate the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.

That is nearly double the number in the newly published Global Report on Food Crises 2020, which estimates that 135 million people in 55 countries currently face acute hunger as a result chiefly of conflict, the effects of climate change, and economic crises. That report was drawn up prior to the emergence of COVID-19 as a pandemic, and the contrasting figures provide a startling insight into the devastating potential of this virus.

Concern is highest for those in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, as the virus threatens lives and livelihoods along with the trading networks they rely on for survival.

“These new projections show the scale of the catastrophe we are facing,” warned WFP chief economist Arif Husain.

Arif said: “We must make sure that tens of millions of people already on the verge of starvation do not succumb to this virus or to its economic consequences in terms of loss of jobs and incomes.

“Just like in developed nations, governments are doing all they can to assist their people. We need to do the same for tens of millions of people.”

The greatest worry is for people living in conflict zones and those forced from their homes and into refugee camps, with countries of concern including northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

“These are the people I’m most worried about,” said Husain. “They did not need COVID-19. Even without it, their lives were hanging by a thread. They literally depend on us for their lives. If we cannot get to them for any reason they end up paying the ultimate price. We need to prioritize the people and make sure we are there. Because if it’s not us, it’s no one else.”

Poor nutrition and resulting weak immunity leaves children especially vulnerable, while crowded camps can be fertile ground for a rampant contagion such as COVID-19.

Sub-Saharan countries

The effects on trade flows that provide a lifeline to millions of people could be equally devastating. Sub-Saharan African countries such as Somalia and South Sudan imported more than 40 million tons of cereals from around the world in 2018 to plug gaps in local food production. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to risks such as price swings during a global crisis. At the same time, countries including Angola and Nigeria will suffer as their fuel exports are hit hard.

“It’s critical that commercial trade continues to flow regardless of anything else taking place around it,” warns Husain. “Because if that stops, the humanitarian work cannot happen. Quite simply, millions of people’s lives depend on the flow of trade, and the impact of disruption on people’s food security is hugely concerning.”

Trade barriers like export bans are extremely counterproductive and often backfire: “Hoarding food supplies or putting up trade barriers does not work. Starving your neighbor is not good policy. We have seen this many times in the food and fuel crisis in 2008 and in the financial crisis of 2009. Again in the food crises of 2010 and 2012. It’s better to facilitate trade and let it flow across the world.”

Countries with large public debt will struggle to mobilize the resources to respond to the crisis, while others — most strikingly Zimbabwe — will have problems replenishing low currency reserves. In the Middle East, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria all face severe economic problems.

“The scenario in poor countries is too gruesome to comprehend,” says Husain. “We need to get ready for the second and the third wave of this disease. People are losing their livelihoods and their incomes and, at the same time, supply chains are disrupted. This translates into a double whammy which has both the breadth and the depth of hunger increasing around the world.”

Urban areas

Husain describes the potential impact on food-insecure people in urban areas as hugely concerning, with the urban middle class, daily wage earners and those who work in the informal and service sectors suddenly becoming vulnerable to poverty and hunger.

‘People are losing their livelihoods and their incomes, and supply chains are disrupted. This translates into a double whammy’

“In urban areas, people are dependent on markets for buying food and hence more vulnerable to price fluctuations and potential availability problems,” he explains. “A sudden and sharp decrease in their purchasing power, particularly in poor countries that do not have the enough fiscal space to launch widescale safety net programs, is especially troubling therefore.”

Additionally, urban slums will be particularly exposed in the case of an outbreak, due to cramped and unsanitary conditions.

WFP is taking various steps to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on reaching and supporting the world’s most vulnerable people.

This includes expanding its real-time, remote food-security monitoring in several countries, to assess how supply chains are functioning and monitor households’ access to health care. Information is available to the wider humanitarian community, while the public can access information via WFP’s Hunger Map LIVE and Hunger Analytics Hub.

WFP is assessing where cash transfers can be distributed electronically in areas where food is readily available, and already works with governments on an ongoing basis to strengthen social protection systems, which are likely to feature cash as a default response during the pandemic.

Other measures include pre-positioning food closest to those most in need — while supply chains are still working — providing double rations to reduce the number of distributions, providing take-home rations to replace school meals, and launching health-education campaigns.

WFP has established international and regional staging areas, built out of its global network of Humanitarian Response Depots.

WFP has set up the Addis Ababa Humanitarian Air Hub, with support from the Government of Ethiopia, to transport protective equipment, medical supplies and humanitarian workers across Africa for the COVID-19 response. It will also ensure medical evacuations for humanitarian responders. UN ‘solidarity flights’ have already begun, with WFP transporting vital medical cargo to all countries across the continent on behalf of the wider humanitarian community.

Supplies delivered include one million face masks as well as personal protective equipment — enough to protect health workers treating more than 30,000 patients across the continent — and laboratory supplies to support surveillance and detection.

“WFP is placed well, because of its on-the-ground presence, to help vulnerable people around the world with nutrition-based activities, with school meals-type activities, with cash, so that people can buy their food and generate economic growth in local communities and access food when there are shortages,” says Husain. “This is why it’s so important to do what we do best. We’ve got to be there for these people, because if we’re not, nobody else is.”

WFP has asked for US$350 million as part of an appeal under the Global Humanitarian Response Plan to COVID-19, in order to provide common services including working with humanitarian and other partners to bring health facilities such as ventilators and protective equipment into countries.

Its wider plan of work for 2020 will cost at least US$12 billion, a figure that could easily rise depending on the impact of the pandemic on hungry people. A total US$1.9 billion of this money is needed now, in order to pre-position food closer to people in most need and while supply chains are still working. “The more we wait, the more disruption there is to supply chains, the more expensive it would be both economically and in lost lives,” added Husain.

Appeal for funds to fight COVID-19

In an open letter published on Monday, the WFP and 14 other humanitarian organizations urged donors to supply a further US$350 million to kickstart the “rapid scale-up” of logistics in the global emergency system.

“Humanity collectively faces its most daunting challenge since the Second World War,” the letter said. With a virus that does not recognize borders, “now is not the time to slow down. No one is safe until everyone is safe,” it continued.

The open letter stated: “In countries where the world’s most vulnerable need humanitarian aid and supplies to beat back the pandemic, cancelled flights and disrupted supply routes hit disproportionately hard.”

Merkel and Macron warn

The warning comes after Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron joined other European and African leaders, in a letter to the Financial Times last week, in calling for WFP to take a central role in combating the spread of COVID-19.

Supply chains shut down

Margot van der Velden, WFP’s head of Emergencies said: “Supply chains across the world have shut down — borders are closed, food exports blocked, manufacturing industries disrupted, and transport grounded.

She added: “Without these funds, the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is severely threatened. Vital medical supplies and staff will not be able to reach the people that need them most.

“The lives and livelihoods of the billions of people that rely on humanitarian support on a daily basis will be at risk. The services are ready to go, the cargo hubs are established — now we just need the funding to get everything up and running at full scale.”

The initial investment would also aim to build field hospitals and facilitate real-time remote data collection that allows organizations to identify where people need assistance most and to deliver it as fast as possible.

She added: “WFP provides a lifeline to 97 million people around the world, many of whom are the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. It is absolutely essential that we continue to provide food and nutrition assistance to these populations.”

Van Velden added that aside from the funding the UN’s COVID-19 fund is waiting for, WFP is urgently requesting “US$1.9 billion in order for us to forward purchase and pre-position three-month-stocks of food and cash in order to minimize disruption and ensure stability.”

Hungry, jobless Americans

An AFP report from New York said:

American families slammed by the coronavirus pandemic are turning more and more to food banks to get by, waiting hours for donations in lines of cars stretching as far as the eye can see.

And with 22 million people out of work seemingly overnight as business after business closes under the Great Lockdown, these charities feeding hungry and scared people fear the day will come when they cannot cope with the tsunami of demand.

1,000 cars waiting for food

On Tuesday, for instance, some 1,000 cars lined up at a distribution center set up in Pennsylvania by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Demand for its bags of food soared nearly 40 percent in March.

At eight centers like that one, some 227 tonnes of food were placed in the trunks of cars of families suddenly unable to put meals on the table, said the organization’s vice president Brian Gulish.

“A lot of people are utilizing our service for the first time. They have never turned to a food bank before,” said Gulish. So they do not know there is a network of 350 distribution points in southwest Pennsylvania.

“That’s why those lines are so long. Because they don’t know that network that we have,” Gulish added.

All over America, from New Orleans to Detroit, people abruptly stripped of a paycheck are flocking to food banks – sad scenes of desperation among people waiting for their small share of stimulus money included in the $2.2 trillion emergency relief package approved by Congress last month.

10,000 cars in front of a food bank

Perhaps the most dramatic picture of some Americans’ new food insecurity unfolded April 9 in San Antonio, Texas, where a staggering 10,000 cars showed up at one food bank, with some families arriving the night before to just sit and wait.

“We have gone for months without work,” a woman who gave her name only as Alana said at a food distribution center in Chelsea in suburban Boston.

“I find a lady yesterday with a 15-day-old baby, a newborn. The husband is not working, she has two more kids. She was having no food in her house,” said Alana.

Everywhere, food bank officials say their needs in the pandemic era have skyrocketed all of a sudden – by 30 percent, for example, at a network in Akron, Ohio.

“We built a supply chain over the years that would serve a certain anticipated need for food. Ramping that up 30 percent overnight is nearly impossible,” said Dan Flowers, CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.

In part, this is because the food banks are caught up in the maelstrom that has hit the US food industry.

With restaurants closed because of the lockdown, Americans are stocking up on everything in grocery stores, which no longer can make as many product donations as they usually do. Ditto for restaurants that often donate surplus food to homeless shelters.

Fortunately, the US food industry is in fact making donations.

Food banks including 200 local branches of an organization called Feeding America are even getting special kinds of loads to hand out.

US food giant JM Smucker, maker of many well-known products such as Folgers coffee, is a regular donor and has sent extra pallets of food to banks in Ohio. And a distillery called Ugly Dog in Michigan dispatched a truckload of hand sanitizing gel made from residual alcohol and packed in pint bottles that normally hold booze, said Flowers.

Worn out

Cash donations are also coming in, ranging from anonymous people to the likes of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, who donated $100 million to Feeding America.

“If it wasn’t for that, these food banks would not be able to meet this demand,” said Flowers.

The Food Bank For New York City, a major one in the Big Apple, is ordering higher volume than it normally does, said Zanita Tisdale, its director of member engagement.

“We know if we’re going to go back in a week the cost may have increased significantly or the turnaround time for getting that product to our warehouse may have extended exponentially,” she said.

As supply chains get more complex and the legions of desperate families grow, there is the issue of those manning the food banks, who are simply exhausted after weeks of toil.

“Our staff is worn out. They have been working so hard. We’re all ready for this to end,” said Flowers.

After a month of all this frenetic work, the food banks are holding up, at least for now. But the future – like for so much of the new world created by the pandemic – is uncertain.

“The supply is still good, but a month from now we don’t know,” said Gulish.

The relief plan passed by the U.S. Congress includes $850 million for food banks and Flowers says he expects that cash to start flowing in June.

“I think we’ll get back on track then. I’m mostly concerned about the next six to eight weeks,” said Flowers.




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