With the coronavirus pandemic derailing economic growth everywhere, there is growing concern worldwide about hunger and malnutrition and the catastrophic impoverishment of populations. The World Bank predicts that there will be 150 million more people living in extreme poverty by 2022. The proportion of the world’s population living on less than $1.9 a day is expected to rise especially in countries with already high levels of poverty.
According to World Bank President David Malpass, the World Bank has already provided pandemic relief to more than 100 nations that account for 70 percent of the world’s population and is committed to an additional $160 billion in grants, loans and investments to developing countries within 15 months to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Even earlier, in his statement, Malpass called on creditor countries to join the initiative of the G20, which announced a moratorium on debt payments by a number of developing countries.
The goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 has been set by the United Nations as a condition for sustainable development. But the World Bank, which provides loans to developing countries, said that without swift and serious action there is no chance of achieving this goal. The recently resigned United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, argues that the fight against global poverty has failed. There are even more people living in poverty today than there were two decades ago. “We squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic,” Alston said in his latest report.
Even before the pandemic in Europe, where countries are famous for their advanced social security systems, there were many people on the brink of poverty, the US media reported. According to a Eurostat report, as of 2019, 92.4 million people in the EU were on the brink of poverty and social exclusion — 21.1% of the total population. But the coronavirus has gravely exacerbated the problem, and now even more Europeans are vulnerable, increasingly having to turn to food banks for help.
For the first time in its 70-year history, the United Nations Children’s Fund — UNICEF — announced that it would provide food to hungry children in Britain as their numbers steadily grew.
The pandemic has widened the gap between the poor and the rich even further apart. In July 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the coronavirus had “exposed” the problem of inequality having existed for several decades; whole regions that had demonstrated progress in eradicating poverty were set back.
Even in Germany, the driving force of Europe, there has been growing talk of impoverishment. For example, the German magazine Der Spiegel emphasizes that the problem of poverty in Germany has changed in the face of the coronavirus pandemic: According to a statistical report published every two years, citizens who once fell below the poverty threshold now remain below it for longer and longer. Ever since the early 1990s, the gap between rich and poor in this country has widened and eventually grew substantially: in 2018, nearly one in six (15.8%) residents was in a group approaching the poverty threshold. The structure of poverty has also changed: the highest risk of poverty is found among single mothers and fathers, at 41%. It is also high for people with a high school diploma and without additional vocational training (35%), and for first-generation migrants (29%). It turned out that migrants (15%) experience financial difficulties almost twice as often as people without a migration background (8%). An increased risk of poverty is found in the structurally underdeveloped western regions and, even 30 years after unification, in eastern Germany. In addition, the effects of the coronavirus epidemic have exacerbated the sense of unfair income inequality: half of citizens feel that their wages do not match their professional skills.
Another major negative effect on the world economy and living conditions in many countries has been the sharp increase in food prices, as noted by experts. Uncertain prospects for market recovery, protectionist measures by governments, currency fluctuations and a number of other factors are pushing up the cost of food. Although so far the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is not inclined to exaggerate the severity of the situation, nevertheless it does not deny the real possibility of further increases in global food prices. It will be especially difficult for the world’s poorest countries, which will have to import a lot of food.
As emphasized by Bloomberg, food inflation is always a negative factor, and its new wave will be particularly severe. As the coronavirus pandemic has derailed the growth of the global economy, new concerns about hunger and malnutrition have emerged — even in the world’s wealthiest countries. Sylvain Charlebois, head of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Canada, noted in this regard: “People will have to get used to having to pay more for food. The situation will only get worse.”
The overall index of food prices in January rose by 4.3% year-on-year, the indicator has increased for the eighth consecutive month and reached the highest since July 2014, according to a press release from the UN FAO.
Experts report that last year the number of chronically malnourished people rose by 130 million to more than 800 million — roughly eight times the total number of Covid-19 cases reported to date. The specter of impending famine came precisely at the moment when government budgets were overstretched by measures to protect the population and economy from a pandemic. To avert a crisis, the World Bank’s special fund for the poorest countries, the International Development Association (IDA), has allocated $5.3 billion to improve food security over the six months from April to October 2020. This amount includes both a number of short-term measures to combat the covid-19 and investments to address the long-term causes of food shortages.
According to UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and World Bank Managing Director for Operations Axel van Trotsenburg, the focus must now be on monitoring risks and compounding factors from the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Only by working together to save lives can we free the world’s most vulnerable people from paralyzing hunger and danger and build the foundation for a better future for all.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.