WORLD: From COVID 19 pandemic to hunger pandemic: millions at the brink of starvation

Avinash Pandey

Things were already turning bad after almost three decades of success in fight against hunger and starvation. Reversing the trend, hunger has been rising consistently since 2017, and the last four years have seen millions falling through the net and becoming hungry for the first time. By the end of 2019, 820 million people were going hungry to the bed.

The Global Report on Food Crises 2020 found out that out of these, 135 million people in 55 countries faced acute hunger as a result chiefly of conflict, the effects of climate change, and economic crises. The number was highest in the four years of the GRFC’s existence.

That number has just doubled. The countries at risk too have seen a massive increase.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has predicted that if swift and efficient actions are not taken, the world would see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger by the end of the year, up from current 135 million. Most of the increase, it added, would be in the Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs).

The only thing worse and more frightening than this doubling of acute hunger is that the figures might have been grossly underestimated.

The earlier rise over last 4 years was caused mainly by conflicts in the Middle East Asia, impacts of climate change across the world and economic crises- including those caused by faulty policies like demonetisation in India. There was no pandemic which had crippled the world, though. The world had not come to a standstill, food supply chains on which many countries specially in Africa (and also Nepal) depend were intact.

COVID, unlike many other earlier pandemics, has left no country untouched- developing or developed. It has caused similar havoc in super power United States of America and far poorer countries. Yet, the cost of the pandemic is not merely health. It is destroying economies and thus adding the fear of bringing a hunger pandemic.

In the world post COVID19 pandemic, everything has changed. It has changed to the extent that experts believe that for poorer countries, the economic consequences of the COVID19 would be far worse than the health ones. The developments show that very clearly.

International Labour Organisation had reported that some 1.6 billion of the world’s 2 billion informal workers, or nearly half the global workforce, had already lost their jobs, by April 2020 itself, most of them in LMICs. For example, as per ILO, India alone risked 400 millions workers in informal sector falling deeper into poverty with unemployment rate jumping to a staggering 23.5% in April, a sharp spike from 8.7% in March.

 Though there is no reliable data if partial ‘unlockdown’ in many countries has improved the situation even a little bit, things do not look any bright for many reasons.

What further complicates the situation is that in earlier crisis, be they economic or health pandemics, though jobs were often lost in formal sector, informal sector employment used to increase as the world would not come to a standstill, governments and societies would try to bounce back, people who lost jobs in formal sector would try to make up by taking whatever jobs were available in informal sector for survival till the situation improves.

This time it is the reverse. Lockdown across countries effectively wiped out many existing jobs in the informal sector, let alone offering a buffer for those losing jobs. Developing countries like India proved to be one of the worst victims with most of their jobs being in the informal sector.

COVID has also affected the countries depending on remittances as a significant part of their economies very badly. With work getting stopped across the world, many of the migrant labours suffered the double whammy of losing income and still being forced to pay for their food and rent until they got back to their countries, often paying the fare too. The severity of the crisis can be estimated by the fact that after reaching a record high of $554 billion in 2019 and becoming a bigger source of external financing than Foreign Direct Investment in the LMICs, the remittance flow is expected to fall sharply across the World Bank Group regions: Europe and Central Asia (27.5 percent), Sub-Saharan Africa (23.1 percent), South Asia (22.1 percent), the Middle East and North Africa (19.6 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (19.3 percent), and East Asia and the Pacific (13 percent).

After growing by 6.1 percent in 2019, remittances to South Asia are estimated to fall by 22 percent to $109 billion in 2020 hitting countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even India rather hard. Again, COVID caused economic slowdown that started a cascading effect leading to sharp fall in oil prices affecting the oil producing countries are the main reason behind this.

Added to the crisis is the stark reality of many of the countries being forced to divert resources from existing health programs to fight COVID 19. Citing a study in the Lancet Global Health Journal, the U.N. Children’s Fund has already warned that this can lead to as many as 1.2 million extra deaths among children under five over the next six months, or 6,000 a day.

The question, then, becomes if a COVID caused famine, if one can call it that, is inevitable. It is not, perhaps as there is no shortage of food even in most populous countries like India which stocks a buffer for years. In most of these countries the problem has always been of delivery systems as well as costs- forcing the poor who have to spend around 60 percent of their income on food items into malnutrition and chronic hunger. COVID only worsened it with initial lockdowns leading to some short-term supply problems, and localized shortages of some food items causing a sharp price hike, forcing many to cut down on them.

The countries, though, can address it with proactive social welfare measures including, if necessary, free food distribution among the needy. If they do not, the world is really doomed.



Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-018-2020
Countries : India,
Issues : Right to food, Right to health, Right to life,