Reports on the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadliness of the virus in many countries worldwide including the United States and EU nations, continue to dominate American, European and Asian news outlets. Still, lives of the poorest people in many nations are more threatened by starvation than the Coronavirus. If COVID-19 were to spread among such vulnerable individuals susceptible to malaria and other serious diseases, the outbreak would, undoubtedly, lead to a tragedy of global proportions.
In recent years, experts from the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations have increasingly warned the public that the number of people suffering from hunger in the world has been increasing considerably. According to UN estimates, there are more than 820 million individuals who are starving at present. In Africa alone, tens of millions of inhabitants of nations, such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, are undernourished. Armed confrontations, natural disasters and their effect on the way conflicts progress are considered to be the main reasons why famine is spreading throughout the world.
The latest report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that 9.2 % of the world population (from Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast and West Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe) “were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2018”. The majority of undernourished people live in nations affected by wars or political crises. Since 2010, the number of armed conflicts has risen by 60%, mainly, as a result of civil wars and confrontations between nations that began during this period. More than 17 million people are in danger of starving to death in Yemen.
The risk of famine is high among the most vulnerable communities, i.e. refugees and internally displaced persons, whose numbers have been consistently increasing in recent years and have reached over 65 million. This means that every 113th individual on the planet is a refugee. As a result of the war in Syria, almost 11 million people have been forced to leave their homes.
According to UN forecasts, at present, armed conflicts already threaten inhabitants of Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen with starvation.
Another important reason why availability of food is a bigger issue now than before is that the number of natural disasters on this planet and their scale has increased as a result of climate change. Droughts, wide-spread wildfires and floods do not just have a negative impact on agricultural sectors in nations affected by these natural disasters, they also cause social conflicts.
Aside from climate change, a devastating locust outbreak has had a detrimental effect on food supply this year, as crops over vast areas of Africa and Asia, from Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia to Pakistan, India and China, have been destroyed. At the end of last year, locust swarms formed in Yemen, they then crossed the Red Sea and reached Ethiopia and Somalia. At present, locusts are increasing in numbers at an unprecedented rate in Iran, Pakistan and India. The Pakistani government has already declared a national emergency over the locust outbreak, which has been acknowledged as one of the worst plagues of this nature in the past 20 years. A number of scientists think that these locust swarms will reduce availability of food by 30 to 50%. FAO has issued a warning that these insects are spreading so rapidly that if the plague is not dealt with swiftly, in three months’ time their numbers could increase 500-fold! According to UN data, the last locust outbreak in West Africa from 2003 to 2005 cost the nations of this region $2.5 billion. According to experts at National Geographic, the locust plague currently threatens the global food supply. Serious disruptions to it could then lead to famine and a new wave of refugees fleeing their homes in the millions.
Aside from aforementioned factors, rising poverty levels even in politically stable nations are having a negative impact on food availability. A global economic downturn has serious consequences for nations that focus on importing primary commodities (e.g. fossil fuels and products of monoculture farming). According to the author, lower import capacities of nations, such as Venezuela and Central African countries, result in increased food prices thus raising the risk of malnutrition and hunger among communities.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has estimated that there could be widespread food insecurity as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. At present, the WFP is providing urgent humanitarian aid to 87 million people in more than 80 countries. And wars, climate change, droughts and floods pose more and more challenges to the work carried out by this humanitarian organization. Because of the Coronavirus, which has spread practically to all African nations, the situation in many of the regions, especially those with weak economies and healthcare systems, is dire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to close their borders, thus Maximo Torero (a staff member at FAO) believes that many European nations may have trouble harvesting their crops in year 2020. Maximo Torero thinks there are two main reasons why the outbreak could lead to food shortages: negative impact on supply chains and lack of labor. The Coronavirus pandemic has compelled nations to shut down their borders, hence most EU member states might face challenges picking and collecting crops in 2020. Typically, seasonal workers are hired from Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria but, in recent weeks, their ability to travel has been restricted due the closure of borders to combat the outbreak. The situation could get worse in June and July, and then even continue in this trajectory. According to Maximo Torero, if “measures aimed at lessening the shocks to” countries’ food supply chains are not taken, these nations may experience food shortages, especially of fresh vegetables and fruit.
In addition, according to heads of international organizations, such as Qu Dongyu (FAO), Roberto Azevêdo (WTO) and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (WHO), panic could lead to a considerable decrease in food security worldwide. Nations that have already begun to panic due to issues with availability of certain foods may restrict their exports, which will result in shortages of such goods on world markets. Venezuela, Algeria, Mauritania and the entire Middle East may experience the greatest difficulties.
This is why combatting hunger and food shortages is just as important for the global community as fighting the Coronavirus is.
Vladimir Odintsov, political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.