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As the COVD-19 tsunami began its global spread, it exacerbated crises that were already taking a toll of vulnerable populations across the world.
In India the pandemic triggered a domestic migrant worker disaster. In Yemen it threatened a death toll far worse than the one inflicted by civil war. And in Central America, where farming was destroyed by years of extreme climate events, the pandemic wrecked food security for 1.7 million people, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)
“COVID is making the poorest of the world poorer and the hungriest hungrier,” said Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the WFP, at an ethnic media press briefing on February 26 to discuss the fallout from the pandemic. Advocates warned that a coronavirus-induced global famine loomed for millions.
“270 million people marching towards the brink of starvation need our help today more than ever,” WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley, told the UN Security Council last year. “Famine is literally on the horizon.”
The pandemic has inflicted its heaviest toll on poorer communities in the developing world, exposing the inequities driven by poverty and economic inequality that plague marginalized populations.
In India nearly 1 in 3 people face moderate or severe food insecurity, said Parul Sachdeva, India Country Representative for Give2Asia, a non-profit that supports charities in the Asia Pacific. India has the distinction of being the country with the largest number of food insecure people, and accounts for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity. When the pandemic hit, people were already struggling with poverty and socio-economic crises that gave them less food to eat. The lockdown that followed disrupted both the harvest and the food supply chain. More than a hundred million people and their incomes were affected by the inability to harvest crops in time.
When India enforced a shutdown to stop the coronavirus spread, it forced tens of thousands of migrant workers to make the long trek back to their villages after they lost jobs and wages. Without ration cards or money to buy food, the disruption to food chains put thousands at risk of hunger, leaving them to rely on NGOs and charitable civic organizations like Akshaya Patra, rather than the government, to provide food aid.
In a double whammy, the pandemic lockdown that increased food insecurity also fueled gender-based violence (GBV).
During lockdown, reported cases of gender-based violence more than doubled during the pandemic, said Aradhana Srivastava, of WFP’s India office. “The extent of suffering is actually much larger than what is being seen.” Research shows that domestic violence closely correlates with income levels, said Srivastava, and GBV is higher among lower-income households and food-insecure families. Increased food insecurity causes mental stress in households and triggers domestic violence towards women. “The increased incidence of domestic violence is linked to loss of livelihoods, loss of access to food — so there is a direct bearing.”
Since 2014, prolonged drought and excessive hurricanes in Central America have destroyed staple crops. But severe climate events and poverty – the key causes of food insecurity – have worsened with the pandemic. “The face of hunger In Central America has changed,” stated Elio Rujano, a Communications Officer for the World Food program. In Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, food insecurity has now spread from rural communities into urban areas. COVID lockdowns have taken away income from daily wage earners – 50% of the economy depends on informal labor – which has made it harder for people to meet basic needs like food.
Six years of conflict inYemen has ripped apart the country’s infrastructure and fragile heath system, displacing almost 4 million of its 30 million inhabitants. Conflict has become the main driver of hunger, as food prices skyrocket, and frontlines move. With COVID and the ensuing lockdown, the hunger situation hit new peak in Yemen. WFP forecasts a severe risk of famine and acute malnutrition in 2021 for 2 million children aged 1 to 5, which will have severe long term impact felt by “generations to come.” But famine has not been declared in Yemen even though “people are dying of hunger,” said Annabel Symington – Head of Communications for the WFP in Yemen, calling for funds to mount programs and interventions. “The time to act is now.”
The WFP feeds 100 million in 88 countries every year divided between 3 initiatives:1.Natural disasters, typhoon, cyclones, 2. Conflicts, and 3. Ongoing non-emergency aid such as school meals, pregnant women new mother nutrition, community help, and small farmers. In 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger.
“We provide basics for sustainability till long term solutions can be developed,” said Taravella. For years the WFP “chipped away” effectively at hunger rates. But conflict, climate and COVID-19 are causing humanitarian crises of catastrophic proportions, making it impossible for people to access food. Before COVID-19 there were about 135 million hungry people in the world. Today nearly 690 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. WFP projects they need $13.5 billion to bridge the gaps in their budget.
According to Taravella, a small group of 2200 billionaires hold about $8 trillion in global wealth. They could help to overturn the tidal wave of food insecurity washing over the world’s poor.
“We are making an appeal to the world’s exceptionally wealthy people to help us close that gap,” he added.