Famine is riding alongside pestilence, on the tail of war. Though coronavirus leaves no part of the world untouched, its impact will be harshest in places that were already suffering. Yet the problems it brings with it may prove more deadly than Covid-19 itself. Even in the richest countries, coronavirus has left families in hunger; for the poorest, it could mean starvation.
The head of the World Food Programme warns that we are now on the brink of a hunger pandemic, with the prospect of multiple famines “of biblical proportions” within a few months, across three dozen countries. Households already struggling to survive have lost the work that fed them. Remittances sent home by family members abroad are predicted to fall by around a fifth due to Covid-19. Tourism has vanished. Children are missing the nutritious school meals they depend upon. Quarantine regulations and transport issues are disrupting food supply chains.
Covid-19 alone has not created this crisis. Rather, it is one more devastating blow, complicating and deepening the troubles of countries already struggling with the impact of war, global heating, other health crises, and specific threats such as the locust infestations plaguing east Africa. It could almost double the number of those facing acute hunger, pushing an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation by the end of the year. In all, shortages are likely to affect a fifth of the world’s population. Many of them live in overcrowded conditions, with poor sanitation, and a considerable number have pre-existing health problems such as HIV or TB; malnutrition will make them more vulnerable to Covid-19 and other threats.
Yet the worst is not inevitable. The food crisis is currently one of distribution and affordability, though in the longer term agriculture is likely to suffer, particularly in places where it is labour intensive.
Developing countries cannot afford the support packages adopted elsewhere, and no single nation can solve supply issues. International solutions are required; UN organisations are uniquely placed to handle border closures, restrictions and transport disruption given their regional presences, contacts and diplomacy. In the long run, warn economists and global health experts, developing countries will need trillions of dollars to recover. The UN is seeking just $2bn for its emergency appeal; yet as of last week, wealthier countries had pledged only a quarter of that. They must deliver on those promises now, and give more.
Particularly essential within that is the $350m logistics plan, which would allow goods and relief workers to reach crisis-hit areas. Persuading governments to allow essential agricultural and food workers to move within and between countries will be crucial. The UN has warned that trying to protect domestic supplies through tariffs and export bans will create extreme volatility. Finally, the G20 and International Monetary Fund agreements to suspend debt are a step forward, but insufficient; private creditors too must act.
All this is a matter of common decency, but also of self-interest. In 2007-08 we saw how rising food prices can destabilise societies, producing repercussions felt much more widely. In several countries, the spectre of unrest is already emerging. Coronavirus is the latest and perhaps most immediate demonstration of what the climate crisis and wars in Syria and elsewhere should already have told us: that other people’s suffering will not be contained. It is our business, too.