The coronavirus could double severe hunger around the world to 265 million people without ‘swift action,’ UN warns

Employees of the World Food Programme distribute relief items to displaced Yemenis amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, in the capital Sanaa, April 18, 2020. Five years of Saudi-led bombings, backed by the United States, have already ravaged the country. Essa Ahmed/AFP via Getty Images
  • Severe food insecurity across the globe could double, the United Nations’ World Food Programme said Tuesday.
  • Some 135 million people were “acutely food-insecure” in 2019. Without swift intervention, that number could increase to 265 million by the end of 2020, the UN says.
  • “We could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries,” David Beasley, the program’s executive director, said.
  • Prior to the pandemic, conflicts around the world were the leading cause of food insecurity, a UN spokesperson told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus pandemic could precipitate a second crisis, the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Tuesday.

As the health emergency ruptures global supply chains, eviscerates workers’ income, and devastates conflict zones, the number of people on the brink of starvation could double to 265 million by the end of 2020, the UN said. The WFP’s warning was a striking amendment to its 2020 global report, which said that 135 million people are already severely hungry and face starvation.

The economic impact of the coronavirus will worsen the already dire state of global food security, the UN warned.

“COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage,” Arif Husain, senior economist at WFP, said in a statement.

2020 was already going to be the worst year for severe food insecurity in more than six decades, David Beasley, executive director of WFP, said during a Tuesday teleconference at the UN Security Council.

“In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons,” Beasley said.

Afghans wait in line to receive free food donated by King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, ahead of the upcoming holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 5, 2019
A food line at the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, hours before Ramadan, May 5, 2019. Rahmat Gul/AP Photo

He cited the Saudi-led bombing campaigns, backed by the United States, in Yemen; the Syrian civil war; and conflicts in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

The top three most vulnerable countries are Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan, where a combined 43 million people are “in crisis or worse,” according to the report. Venezuela came in fourth, with 9.3 million facing starvation amid ongoing US sanctions that have narrowed access to food, among other essential goods.

“And the list goes on,” Beasley said. “We’re already facing a perfect storm.”

What’s looming for hundreds of millions of people, he and others said, is famine.

“We don’t use ‘the F word’ lightly,” Steve Taravella, a WFP spokesperson, told Business Insider in an email.

“WFP raising this is significant,” Taravella continued. The warning “is maybe the most grim I have seen WFP issue in my 12 years here,” he said.

‘Acutely food-insecure people in crisis or worse’

Currently, Africa has been the region hit hardest by hunger or starvation, affecting 73 million people. Next is the Middle East with 43 million, Latin America with 18.5, and Europe with half a million. If the world intends to prevent the number of “acutely food-insecure people in crisis or worse” from doubling, global actors must take charge immediately, Taravella said.

There must be a full end to regional conflict, which was the main driver of food insecurity in the last several years, explained Taravella. In 2019, conflict rendered 77 million people food-insecure. The UN has worked to create a global ceasefire amid the pandemic, according to Foreign Policy, but the effort has been blocked by the US and Russia.

Climate change, the second biggest driver of severe hunger in 2019, must be meaningfully addressed, according to the report. Thirty-four million people were food-insecure last year because of climate-induced disasters. Economic crises were the third biggest driver, impacting 24 million people.

Taravella called for state and non-state actors to give humanitarian workers “unimpeded access” to people in need.

“When warring factions prevent aid workers from entering areas where people need food, and when conditions are not safe for hungry people to leave hiding in conflict settings to seek food, we cannot prevent starvation,” he said.

He also said the WFP and other humanitarian organisations require more funding to help people around the world suffering from the pandemic.

“We urgently need $US350 million to mount the critical response needed to feed people affected by COVID in the developing world,” Taravella said.

Without swift action, “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,” Beasley said.