The coronavirus pandemic has created a disruption domino effect of a health crisis — a collapsing economy, rising unemployment and disruptions to the food supply are all upending the developed world.
The developing world is experiencing the same emergency. But as with so much in this era of intensifying inequality, the suffering is on an order of magnitude much more extreme — and lethal. In fact, COVID-19 could create a “hunger pandemic,” according to David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, who in an address to the U.N. Security Council and in media appearances has described the dire possibility of a staggering 260 million people “marching to starvation.”
The U.N. amplified the theme when it said for the first time since 1998, global poverty rates will rise and that by the end of 2020, 8% of the world, or about half a billion people, will be destitute due to the pandemic’s impact.
Many already have been hit hard by the global lockdowns necessary to save lives, especially because in so much of developing world work is in the informal economy, and governments don’t have adequate safety-net resources.
Compounding factors include a global demand contraction; increasing calls from countries like Russia and Vietnam for export bans on some staples like wheat and rice; an oil-price shock shredding several Mideast, African and Latin American economies; reduced remittances from emigrants essential to developing nations; armed conflict; climate-change displacement; and in some African and Asian nations, an almost biblical plague of locusts.
On top of these is COVID-19 itself, which has already ravaged countries such as Ecuador. Reliable data is difficult in countries with unreliable leaders, but Brazil and Venezuela, among other nations, have been hit hard, too. Most countries in the developing world don’t have the kind of societies or space to successfully social distance. They also lack anywhere near the number of ventilators, ICU beds and personal protective equipment that have been hard to get even in the West.
Regarding world hunger, “COVID-19 no doubt will worsen the situation significantly,” Rob Vos, director of the Markets, Trade and Institutions division of the International Food Policy Research Institute, told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange. Specifically, Vos added, the three key factors driving spiraling hunger and poverty are the global recession that’s also hurting developing countries’ export earnings, disruptions in the food-supply chain and limited capacity of countries to counteract the economic damage.
But amid the grim reality, he said there is hope, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank setting up new mechanisms for large-scale financial support to developing countries. But much more is needed, and soon.
“Overall, so far it seems too little and, if major economies do not get their act together, it may soon prove to be too late,” Vos said.
While the world has had this many hungry people before, the speed and pace of the pandemic-triggered collapse is “unprecedented in recent history,” Vos said. “So unprecedented action will be required to avoid not only many people [who] will die from COVID-19 but possibly many more from hunger.”
This means homing in on both health and hunger mitigation; it is not a binary choice.
“It’s not COVID vs. hunger,” Beasley told “PBS NewsHour.” “We have got to work together on these two issues, because they are tied together. It transcends borders, it transcends cultures, and it certainly transcends politics.”
That’s a fact that should be remembered by U.S. policymakers, who can honor America’s history of global leadership by responding to the coronavirus crisis both within and beyond this country’s borders.