01 May, 2020

Food crises 2020: old challenges and new entries at the time of global pandemic

by Alessandro Balduzzi

The World Food Programme (WFP) recently published its fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises

This report tells us that at the close of 2019, 135 million people in 55 countries and territories faced acute food insecurity and required urgent action. In addition, over 183 million people were in stressed food insecurity conditions, at high risk of sliding into acute food insecurity if confronted by additional shocks – which is particularly worrisome in light of the anticipated evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, 17 million children in these 55 countries and territories suffered from wasting due to acute malnutrition, and as many as 75 million had stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition. 

As we said, this story dates back to 2019, which means that the significant impact of COVID-19 has not been assessed yet. And while the specific impact of the pandemic on the food supply chain is still unknown, some possible consequences have already been sketched

Generally speaking, a sluggish economy worsened by trade restrictions is likely to involve smaller national budgets, reduced household incomes and inflation as to food prices. The negative effect of this chain of events would be particularly disruptive for under-resourced and vulnerable nations, whose food security would be at risk. 

Another collateral effect concerns foreign aid. Since high-income nations – including wealthy members of OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) – number among the worst affected by the pandemic, we cannot rule out that their aid for development will be limited as long their resources are mainly devoted to their own economic and social crisis. 

A combination of factors that will likely make the number of people suffering from acute hunger jump up to 265 million individuals.

According to the report, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Venezuela were the four worst-affected countries facing acute food insecurity in 2019, followed by Ethiopia (affected also by locust swarms), South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti. 

And 2020 is undoubtedly going to be even worse. Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world even before the beginning of the war between the Saudi-supported, internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels in 2015. According to the WFP, between three and four million people needed food assistance. As to now, their number has swelled to more than 12 million out of a population of about 28 million. 

On top of that, the WFP announced earlier this month that it would reduce its aid to Houthi-controlled areas by half since rebels are said to obstruct aid deliveries. In light of a dilapidated health system, coronavirus – whose first confirmed case was reported in the country at the beginning of April – could quickly worsen an already tragic situation.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has lived more than twenty-five years of armed conflict in some of its regions. This long war has doubtless contributed to turning the country into the world’s second-largest hunger crisis. 

Out of a population of around 85 million people, 15 percent of DRC’s inhabitants are classed as “severely food insecure”. Almost two billion dollars are needed just to provide them with food in the next three months. On top of that, the DRC also has 5 million Idps (internally displaced people) and hosts over half a million refugees from neighbouring counties. 

So far, coronavirus has mainly affected the capital Kinshasa, but it is likely to spread even in war-torn areas where any attempt to contain it can turn out to be vain. 

Afghanistan is another country which has been ravaged by conflict for decades. More than half of its population lived below the poverty line in 2019, and WFP classed over 11 million people as severely food insecure. 

Coronavirus has added fuel to the fire. Even though just over 1,000 cases have been confirmed by the Afghan government as to now, more than 150,000 Afghans returned from virus-stricken Iran during March and tens of thousands returned from Pakistan.
Venezuela is a relatively new entry in the list of the worst-affected countries affected by food insecurity. In fact, its current condition has not been triggered by year-long conflicts as the case is in the countries we have already examined. It is rather the product of economic hardship. 

In spite of hosting the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has been affected by hyperinflation to such an extent that a third of its people need food assistance. Coronavirus has obviously worsened the local situation, which is also short of health workers who have left for neighbouring countries in recent years. 
This mass exodus has involved around 4.8 million people – that is around 15 percent of the population. At least hundreds of thousands of them are facing food insecurity in host countries too.

The main new development which coronavirus produced, though, is that many more low- and middle-income countries – not necessarily war-torn or struck by previous economic crises – are likely to be affected by job losses and other difficulties hindering the access to food. 

Furthermore, the decrease in remittances triggered by a global crisis is bound to further deteriorate income availability in the aforementioned countries.

The picture is grim. According to FAO, international dialogue, country coordination and major interventions aimed at fostering structural changes are strongly requested to ensure the safeguard of future generations and try to mitigate the suffering of current ones.