The economic impact of the pandemic is threatening to become a “humanitarian catastrophe” that could double the number of people suffering from acute hunger (undernourishment over a distinct period). United Nations (UN) World Food Program (WFP) director David Beasley says that the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic, noting that the worst-case scenario would be some three dozen countries will face famine.

“Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility,” says Beasley during a video conference with the UN Security Council.

People residing in conflict zones and those forced to stay in refugee camps such as in Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, need the most attention. Even before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, these people have long known the consequences of conflict, climate change and economic crises.

“They did not need COVID-19. Even without it their lives were hanging by a thread. They literally depend on us for their lives. If we cannot get to them for any reason, they end up paying the ultimate price. We need to prioritize the people and make sure we’re there. Because if it’s not us, it’s no one else,” says WFP chief economist Arif Husain.

Poor nutrition weakens the immune system of many children, especially those in crowded camps that are easy fertile grounds for the spread of COVID-19. The economic impact directly affects food security as well as the livelihood of millions of people who depend on trade, making them extremely vulnerable when market prices escalate. 

According to Husain, trade barriers such as export ban and hoarding food supplies are counterproductive and could backfire—previous food, fuel and financial crises have already taught society that it’s better to “facilitate trade and let it flow across the world.” Husain pointed out that the scenario in poor countries, those struggling with large debts and severe economic problems, is too gruesome to comprehend.

“We need to get ready for the second and the third wave of this disease. People are losing their livelihoods and their incomes and, at the same time, supply chains are disrupted. This translates into a double whammy, which has both the breadth and the depth of hunger increasing around the world,” Husain adds.

Those living in urban areas, along with daily wage earners and workers in the informal and service sector, are endangered as the sudden blow to their purchasing capability exposes them to poverty and hunger. The urban slums also face health risks, even more so during this pandemic.

The WFP is currently redirecting food where it is mostly needed as well as assessing where electronic cash transfer can be distributed for areas with readily available food. Cash is more likely the default response to the pandemic as the WFP works with governments to strengthen social protection systems. They’ve also transported medical supplies and equipment across Africa, which currently has almost 25,000 COVID-19 cases.

“The more we wait, the more disruption there is to supply chains, the more expensive it would be both economically and in lost lives,” says Husain.

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