Covid-19 could detonate a ‘hunger pandemic.’ With millions at risk, the world must act

People prepare food to give to homeless people in Rio de Janeiro on April 11. (Lucas Landau/Reuters)
People prepare food to give to homeless people in Rio de Janeiro on April 11. (Lucas Landau/Reuters)

Just a few months ago, we could talk about the 1918 flu pandemic comforted by the sense that this was something of the past — a crisis of the early 20th century that would never happen to us. Covid-19 has smashed that illusion of safety and security and proved, beyond a doubt, that pandemics are a present and mortal threat to all of us.

The same could be said for famine. You might think of it as a word that lives in the past, or even on the pages of the Bible, that we have tamed one of the four horses of the apocalypse. But just as this new coronavirus has ambushed the lives of millions, we should brace ourselves now for another pandemic, the hunger pandemic that may follow, sowing the seeds of famine in its wake.

Just a few weeks ago, I was coming out of my very own brush with the virus, testing positive as I returned to the United States after a punishing travel schedule, mobilizing funds for the work of the U.N. World Food Program. Given time to recover at my home in South Carolina, I have had the time to think about the virus and the threat it poses to the world. My thoughts have taken me on a frightening journey, and the endpoint is something that we all need to wake up to before it is too late.

What this pandemic has caused is nothing short of a global crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. And as a global crisis, it requires a global response, especially for the tens of millions whose lives will be crushed by the socioeconomic impact of this crisis.

Even before covid-19, the year 2020 had the potential to be a disastrous one for those living on the edge. The unending wars in Syria and Yemen, the worsening conflicts in places such as South Sudan and the Central Sahel in Africa, more frequent natural disasters, the economic crisis in Lebanon affecting Syrian refugees — these crises had already upended the lives of millions, leaving them in extremely vulnerable situations.

The coronavirus pandemic, added to the mix, now threatens to detonate an unprecedented global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations will be further pushed to the brink of starvation. The numbers are shocking: On any given day, the World Food Program offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. Most of them are trapped in war zones and can’t leave.

If we can’t reach these people — if we can’t give them the lifesaving assistance they need because our funding has been cut or borders where we move our food have been closed — WFP’s analysis shows that 300,000 could starve to death every single day for the next three months.

When you consider that already, despite our best efforts, 21,000 people die of hunger every single day, the scale of the potential death toll is heart-rending. We could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries. In 10 countries, we have more than a million people who are on the verge of starvation as we speak.

This is the truth of the looming “hunger pandemic”, which has the potential to engulf over a quarter of a billion people whose lives and livelihoods will be plunged into immediate danger, unless urgent and effective action is taken to keep commercial and humanitarian goods flowing, support communities with humanitarian assistance and provide governments with the additional health interventions required to control the spread of the virus.

In industrialized countries, governments have stepped in to support economies and businesses with packages running into trillions of dollars. But it is also critical that everything is done to ensure that economies keep working in developing nations during and after this crisis.

We need to make the right decisions now to avoid a disaster that will put us all to shame. I, for one, do not want to be haunted by the thoughts and the guilt that come with a sense of what might have been done, when it is simply too late.

The 30 million people who are most at risk and the quarter of a billion who are being plunged into jeopardy will depend on us all to make the right call. Again and again I have had to call on the leaders of generous nations to support our call on behalf of this global community under threat. In Berlin, in Washington, in London and Brussels, they have always taken my call, and they have stepped up to help.

Now, more than ever, we need that generosity to respond to this unprecedented crisis.

There will be no winners when we get to the end of this global crisis, but it is our obligation to act now to ensure that those who stand to lose the most at least have a chance of survival and we do everything within our powers to help preserve their future.

David M. Beasley is the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program. Material from this column was used in an address to the U.N. Security Council.

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