FeaturedInternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 19

The hunger pandemic

The coronavirus crisis poses a serious threat to human life. Besides claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and inflicting psychological trauma on millions of people, it threatens to create a serious worldwide food shortage and push millions of people into extreme poverty.

The pandemic has also exposed the hunger crisis in the US. Images of thousands of cars, lined up bumper-to-bumper for hours to receive meal boxes from a food bank, shocked the whole world. As of early May, more than 30 million people have filed for unemployment in just six weeks. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity has increased in the United States. This is particularly true for households with young children, according to the Brookings Institution.

The Covid-19 lockdown and containment measures threaten to increase relative poverty levels among the world’s informal-economy workers by as much as 56 percentage points in low-income countries, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In high-income countries, relative poverty levels among informal workers are estimated to increase by 52 percentage points, while in upper middle-income countries the increase is estimated to be 21 percentage points. Over 1.6 billion of the world’s two billion informal-economy workers are affected by lockdown and containment measures.

The coronavirus crisis will push more than a quarter of a billion people to the brink of starvation unless swift action is taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions, the UN and other experts have warned. About 265 million people around the world are forecast to be facing acute food insecurity by the end of this year, a doubling of the 130 million estimated to suffer severe food shortages last year.

Global hunger could become the next big impact of the pandemic, warns the Global Report on Food Crises, by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme and 14 other organisations. Some of the poorest countries may face the choice of trying to save people stricken by the virus only for them to fall prey to hunger. The report bolsters warnings that the world could face a repeat of the 2007-08 food price rises that sparked widespread political upheaval, the impacts of which are still being felt across the Middle East and from Asia to Latin America. The report finds that already stretched health services in developing countries are likely to be overwhelmed, while a global recession will disrupt food supply chains. There are particular concerns for people working in the informal economy, and the world’s 79 million refugees and displaced people.

Labour shortages as people fall ill may put further strain on food production, protectionist measures may increase food prices, and rising unemployment will reduce people’s purchasing power, driving more into hunger. Poorer countries are bracing for the full impact of Covid-19 on their health systems, and are already seeing the effects of the economic shutdown that has sent the world spiralling into recession.

Some of the poorest nations “may face an excruciating trade-off between saving lives or livelihoods or, in a worst-case scenario, saving people from the coronavirus to have them die from hunger”, the report warned. Even without the impact of coronavirus, the outlook for many countries – such as Yemen, where conflict has led to millions facing starvation, and in east Africa, where locusts are posing a famine threat – was already dire.

Despite good recent harvests in many parts of the world, the extra stress of the pandemic will take many other nations riven by conflict or political unrest beyond breaking point. Extreme weather driven by climate breakdown is also likely to add to the toll, as it did last year. Last year, of the 130 million people suffering acute food insecurity, the majority (77 million) were in countries afflicted by conflict, 34 million were hit by the climate crisis, and 24 million were in areas where there was an economic crisis.

Multinational food companies also recently warned that the number of people in chronic hunger could double to more than 1.6 billion as a result of the pandemic, and urged world leaders to take action. Nobel prize-winning economists have warned that developed nations will increase the threat of damaging recurrences of the virus in their own countries if they fail to fund measures in the poor world.

Around 135 million people across 44 countries experienced acute food insecurity at the close of 2019, said the Global Report on Food Crises 2020. The report, jointly published by an international alliance of UN, governmental and non-governmental agencies, said a total of 183m people were living in stressed condition at the cusp of acute hunger and at risk of slipping into crisis or worse if faced with a shock or stressor, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The food crises, as well as lack of access to dietary energy and diversity, safe water, sanitation and health care will continue to create high levels of child malnutrition, while the pandemic is likely to overburden health systems in these countries. The key drivers behind the food crises as analysed by the report include conflict, extreme weather and economic turbulence. Around 43m people were estimated to be acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance across ten countries in the Middle East and South and South East Asia, including Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning has estimated that 12.3 million to 18.5 million people in the country will lose their jobs and the economy will sustain Rs2 trillion to Rs2.5 trillion losses in just three months due to “moderate to severe shocks from the coronavirus outbreak”. Initial estimates show that in case of limited restrictions, about 1.4 million jobs will be lost, which are equal to 2.2% of the employed workforce. In monetary terms, the three-month wage loses will translate into Rs66 billion.

A high population growth and unfavourable water and climatic conditions in the country mean that concerns about food security may increase manifold in the future. According to a report by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), almost half of Balochistan’s households face mild to severe food insecurity. Of the 36.9pc food insecure households in the country, 18.3pc face severe food insecurity.

Pakistan is ranked 106th among 119 countries surveyed for the Global Hunger Index, and has been characterised as facing a “serious” level of hunger. It is among seven countries that cumulatively account for two-thirds of the world’s undernourished population along with Bangladesh, China, Congo, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia.

It is alarming that only 63pc of Pakistan’s households are food secure, which is despite the fact that the country is self-sufficient in major foods. The fact that one-third of all households are not food secure in a country which produces almost all of its food means that the problem lies in the mechanism for distribution as well as the low rate of compensating rural labour.

The bottom 60pc of households in the country spend a substantial part of their incomes (45pc on average) on food, which compromises their nutritional security. Even if prices are relatively low and stable, the poorest of the poor still lack the purchasing power to buy food. Thus, like other developing countries, Pakistan also has to resort to in-kind and cash transfers to stabilise and increase the real incomes of the poor. It will also have to expedite its efforts to check population growth.