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Illustration by Security Management

Hunger and Food Insecurity Rising Sharply Worldwide

People in 25 countries worldwide are facing devastating levels of hunger in the coming months due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a United Nations (UN) and World Food Programme (WFP) analysis.

The greatest concentration of need, the updated Global Humanitarian Response Plan (released in mid-July) said, is in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia, including some middle-income countries. The plan includes the largest appeal for funding in the UN’s history—more than $10 billion—to cover wide-ranging humanitarian needs in 63 countries. A special provision of $500 million is earmarked to prevent the outbreak of famine in countries most at risk. As of 12 July, only $1.64 billion in funding had been received.

According to the WFP, “the number of acute food insecure people in these at-risk countries could increase from an estimated 149 million pre-COVID-19 to 270 million before the end of the year if life-saving assistance is not provided urgently. Recent estimates also suggest that up to 6,000 children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as a result of pandemic-related disruptions to essential health and nutrition services.”

In addition, the plan notes that diverted health resources could mean annual death tolls may double from diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

In countries currently hard-hit by the pandemic, the effects of widespread food insecurity and hunger are already evident. A WFP report from 29 July found that Latin America and the Caribbean are set to see a 269 percent rise in the number of people facing severe insecurity over the coming months—16 million people in total, up from 4.3 million in 2019. The health pandemic (Latin America counts for more than a quarter of the world’s current COVID-19 cases) is driving hunger and food insecurity even higher, which risks fueling conflict, political unrest, and refugee crises.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has just been devastating in Latin America, where the economic storm clouds were already gathering,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley in a statement. “Families are struggling to buy basics like food and medicine, as livelihoods are destroyed and the number of people out of work in the region hits 44 million. It’s a deadly combination, and we’ve got to act now, and we’ve got to be smart. You can’t just deal with COVID-19 by itself or hunger by itself. They must be dealt with together. If we do it right, we can save lives. If we don’t do it right, people will die.”

The UN reports that more than 550,000 additional children each month are being struck by wasting—malnutrition manifesting itself as spindly limbs and distended bellies—up 6.7 million from last year’s total. 

“The food security effects of the COVID crisis are going to reflect many years from now. There is going to be a societal effect,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, head of nutrition at the World Health Organization.

Pandemic-related restrictions have cut off small farms from markets and isolated villages from food and medical aid, according to reporting from The Associated Press (AP), and these changes are having marked effects on health and hunger. In Burkina Faso, for example, one in five young children is chronically malnourished, and the pandemic has caused food prices to spike sharply—so much so that 12 million of the country's 20 million residents aren’t getting enough to eat.

In Sudan, 9.6 million people are living from one meal to the next in acute food insecurity—a 65 percent increase from 2019, the AP reports. Sudan was already facing a challenging season before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—due to pests (such as swarms of desert locusts) and seasonal flooding, the country’s production of grain dropped by 57 percent this year. However, lockdowns have diminished opportunities for work and brought supply chains to a halt. Inflation recently hit 136 percent, and prices for basic goods have tripled.

In Zimbabwe, 60 percent of the population (8.6 million people) could become “food insecure” by the end of 2020 as COVID-19 exacerbates a climate- and recession-induced economic crisis, according to the WFP. A national lockdown in response to COVID-19 could cause more job losses, especially in rural areas as unemployed citizens return to their home villages, and political tensions are on the rise as activists call for protests against government corruption, Reuters reports.