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Only the Poor Starve: Hunger in the Time of Covid-19

In addition to the global health crisis and the coming worldwide economic collapse, Covid-19 is fuelling a humanitarian crisis. The World Food Program (WFP) warns that, “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.” The WFP’s view that the biggest impact of the pandemic will not by caused by the virus directly, but the hunger that the flows from it, is in line with other concerned groups.

A recent statement from the WFP warned that “unless swift action is taken”, by the end of the year we “will see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger…in low and middle-income countries.” This is made up of 135 million already facing food shortages, plus an estimated 130 million people (it could well be more), as a result of Covid-19 and would take the total number of people who go to bed hungry every night to around a billion.

On top of the ‘130 million’ there are the tens of millions of casual workers who can only eat if they work. “Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs,” says Dr. Arif Husain, chief economist at WFP, “it only takes one more shock – like Covid-19 – to push them over the edge.”

Countries dependent on food imports and the export of oil are particularly at risk of increased levels of hunger, as well as communities that rely on remittance income from overseas, and tourism. In addition there is the uncertainty around foreign aid as donor countries face the prospect of recession. Those in greatest danger are in 10 countries affected by conflict, economic crisis and climate change – all of which are interconnected. The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises highlights Yemen (where two deaths from Covid-19 have already been reported), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti. Drought and the worst locust infestation for decades (triggered by climate change) have already caused food shortages in South Asia and the Horn of Africa, where according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 12 million people are living under the frightening shadow of food insecurity.

Unless we prepare and act now – “to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade,” the WFP statement state, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”

If the virus takes hold in locations where war is raging, in countries which have weak health care systems, the UN has warned that it would be impossible to limit the impact and/or deliver much needed humanitarian supplies, including food. In an attempt to safeguard these countries the UN Secretary general António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire. While some 70 member states, regional partners, non-state actors, civil society networks and organizations,” have so far endorsed his plea, “there was”, he said, “still a distance between declarations and deeds in many countries.”

If a ‘Pandemic of Hunger’ is to be avoided, in addition to peace and humanitarian access, supply chains, which have been disrupted, must remain open and fluid, allowing food to be transported easily. And, as WFP makes clear, states must not introduce export bans or import duties, which would lead to price rises.

These are urgent steps that must be taken to meet the immediate threat. But these measures will not feed the hundreds of millions suffering from chronic hunger. The primary cause of hunger in our world is not conflict or access to food, it is poverty – there is nowhere in the world where the rich go hungry. To banish hunger for good, lasting fundamental change must be introduced. Systemic change and behavioral change, and the two are inextricably connected.

A perfect storm

Even before Covid-19 the head of the WFP forecast “2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.” He cites wars in Syria and Yemen; the crisis in South Sudan, Burkino Faso and the Central Sahel region in Africa, where UNICEF says, “4.3 million children are now in need of humanitarian assistance,” the economic crisis in Lebanon, as well as countries like Ethiopia, the DRC and Sudan. The list, he says, ‘goes on…we’re already facing a perfect storm.’

The ‘perfect storm’ is an extreme consequence of a series of interconnected causes; many, if not all of which flow from the all-pervasive socio-economic order and the divisive values and attitudes that are promoted. Crystallized as it is, the system is a construct of the consciousness of the past. It is not of the now or the time we are moving into, nevertheless it dominates all life. Like many of our structures and forms it needs to change, many know this and Covid-19 is highlighting the need for change and presenting an opportunity. It is acting as a mirror, an agency of revelation, bringing issues into focus and pouring fuel on already simmering fires, insisting we attend. With businesses closed large numbers of people are being forced to slow down, to stop consuming, stop travelling. A space has opened up in which to reflect and examine how we live, individually as well as collectively.

A range of festering issues, known but either ignored or enflamed, are being brought to the surface; interrelated crises that have been percolating for decades demanding attention and a new approach. The man-made environmental crisis, which is the pressing issue of the age, and the outdated economic structure, inadequate or non-existent public services, the crisis of wealth/income and power inequality and social injustice among a number of other pressing social wounds.

After the pandemic has retreated and lockdowns are released the world economy is, by all predictions set to crash. The IMF estimate The Great Lockdown, as they are calling it, will result in the “worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis.” But as the head of the body, Kristalina Georgieva admits, it could be worse, they don’t know. If the coming crash is met, not with desperation and despair, but with creative imagination and compassion, it may, indeed could, bring about widespread liberation, allowing for a new and just, long overdue, reorganization of the socio-economic and political spheres.

The Age of Reason

Consistent with the new time we are moving into, a shift in collective consciousness is taking place among large numbers of people all over the world. To accommodate this shift, this new awareness that is slowly emerging, new ways of thinking, new institutions and structures are badly needed, including crucially a radically overhauled socio-economic system. A flexible evolving model anchored in certain Principles of Goodness: Unity, sharing and justice.

This common-sense trinity is interdependent and encourages values of cooperation and understanding, responsibility and tolerance. By the expression of one quality the other is strengthened, reinforced, expanded. Key is unity, the recognition that all of life is interconnected, whole, that humanity is one and that all have the same and equal rights. That we all have a responsibility to one another and the natural world and our actions should proceed from a position of awareness. Any new system must have sharing at its core. Sharing would end for good the abomination of men women and children dying of starvation – with or without a pandemic –, or living stunted crippled lives due to malnutrition in a world overflowing with food. Acknowledging what each nation has to offer the world at large (natural resource, including food and water, knowledge and skills, etc.) and what it lacks, what it needs from others. And thirdly, Justice, – social and environmental justice –, under the doctrine of the present order there is neither. The system is inherently unjust and cruel, benefiting these that have, punishing and abusing those that are vulnerable and have not. The natural environment – forests, rivers, oceans, habitat, all are sacrificed or exploited for profit. All need to be protected, nurtured, and allowed to heal, as does humanity.

Through the introduction of sharing as the primary organizing principle underlying the socio-economic order and animating widespread change, trust would be created, relationships built, divisions eroded, allowing for peace to come into being. Peace and freedom are perennial ideals held within the hearts of mankind. Sharing, unity and justice are the means of entry into a world in which they become not just hopes and unrealized dreams, but vibrant qualities animating all modes of living.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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