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World is facing 'multiple famines of biblical proportions' in coming months, UN warns

The Covid-19 pandemic could nearly double the number of people around the world facing acute hunger to 265 million.

A mother carries her malnourished child as the child receives medical treatment in Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, in February.
A mother carries her malnourished child as the child receives medical treatment in Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, in February.
Image: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC could nearly double the number of people around the world facing acute hunger and lead to multiple famines of “biblical proportions”, the United Nations’ World Food Programme has warned.

“We are on the brink of a hunger pandemic,” David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, told the UN Security Council in a video conference yesterday.

“We could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months,” he said. “The truth is we do not have time on our side.”

Beasley added that there is a looming “global humanitarian catastrophe” and the world has to “act wisely and act fast”.

In a call to action, he added: “I do believe that with our expertise and our partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programmes necessary to make certain the Covid-19 pandemic does not become a human and food crisis catastrophe.”

The warning came as the WFP and other partners released a new report on food crises around the world that predicted huge growth in the number of people threatened with “acute food insecurity”.

The fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises said the number was already on the rise last year before the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

The report highlights the dire situation in countries such as Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria.

‘Worst-case scenario’ 

The economic impact of Covid-19 is projected by the WFP to increase the number of people facing food insecurity to 265 million this year, up from 135 million in 2019, already the highest in the four years the report has been prepared.

“With Covid-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe,” Beasley said.

“Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility,” he said.

“In a worst-case scenario, 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.”

Comparing the 50 countries in the reports this and last year, the number of people in food crisis rose by nearly 10% to 123 million people.

The increase was due to conflicts, economic shocks and weather-related events such as drought.

The report found another 183 million people were at risk of slipping into food crisis “if confronted by an additional shock or stressor”.

Covid-19 could easily turn out to be such a shock, both as ill people overwhelm hospitals and governments impose lockdowns that have disrupted the economy and thrown people out of work.

“Covid-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread,” the WFP’s Senior Economist Arif Husain said in a statement.

“We must collectively act now to mitigate the impact of this global catastrophe,” he added.

G20 pledge 

G20 agriculture ministers have pledged to ensure “sufficient” global food supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will work together to help ensure that sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food continues to be available and accessible to all people, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people,” the ministers from the 20 most advanced economies said in a joint statement.

“Under the current challenging circumstances, we stress the importance of avoiding food losses and waste caused by disruptions throughout food supply chains, which could exacerbate food insecurity and nutrition risks and economic loss,” they said after a virtual meeting hosted by the group’s current president Saudi Arabia.

As Covid-19 lockdowns disrupt the global economy, the G20 ministers also said they were working to prevent “excessive food price volatility” in international markets.

The ministers stressed it was important that coronavirus restrictions do not create “unnecessary barriers” to trade and food supply chains.

© AFP 2020 with reporting by Órla Ryan 

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