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The Worst Hunger Season Yet to Come: Global Moral Failure in the Time of Covid-19

As the moral philosopher Peter Singer asserts, we are just as obligated to save a child half a world away than we are to save a child that is drowning right in front of our eyes. While in the past, even the most powerful individuals could not affect what is happening in distant places, we live in a world that is unprecedentedly interconnected through virtual communication, trade and air travel, and in which material wealth – however unequally distributed – is overall exponentially growing. Lack of resources and distance cannot serve as excuses for inaction, and a moral life cannot be lived while ignoring deadly poverty.

How much more serious are these moral implications as we are learning that the restrictions in the wake of the Coronavirus are estimated to kill 10,000 more young children per month? This jarring figure has been mentioned in a call to action by several United Nations – namely the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization[2] –, and an article that will soon be published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. As farms are cut off from markets, children are receiving less and less food, contributing to widespread “wasting“ – which is a type of malnutrition that becomes visible through spindly limbs and inflated bellies, and can cause long-term mental and physical defects.

While the lockdowns on the African continent were mostly necessary (though sometimes they may also be part of authoritarian power-grabs, as Helen Epstein observed in Uganda[3]), cash-strapped government – which are, in some cases, still servicing western debt repayments – cannot compensate for the losses in food supply. Preliminary evidence suggests that it was not geography, Africa’s youthful population or its lack of integration in global commerce and travel networks, but the pragmatic responses by the continent’s governments that explains the low case-numbers of Covid-19 on the African continent.[4]

While it may be hard to completely stamp out the multifaceted global and local political and economic structural reasons that produce famines (such as an underregulated resource extraction sector and the trade of weapons), we do have the tools to sustainably prevent them, at the fraction of the costs of bank bailout or a regime-change operation. As Alex de Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on famines, remarks in his opus “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine”, “(h)umanitarians are better at appealing for as-yet-unmet needs than at providing a robust empirical defence of their record.”

Aid organizations have eliminated polio, which has been reduced by more than 99%[5]. The tide has also been turned on malaria and HIV/Aids, which was predicted to kill half of all young adults living in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, according to a BBC report in 2000[6]. As a study by McArthur and Rasmussen of the Brooking Institute[7] calculates, at least 20.9 million and as many as 30.3 million lives having been saved because states paid more attention to poverty-reduction when they formulated the Millennium Development Goals in the year 2000.

Public depictions of aid taking its marching-orders from feeble international bureaucrats have undermined support for assisting vulnerable populations overseas, which followed the logics of defunding national welfare institutions. Though there are legitimate criticisms of how aid is often intertwined with western foreign policy goals (for example in the US War on Terror or the EU’s effort to stem migration), the categorical rejection and criticisms of aid – which make it to the mainstream – are often informed by axioms of free market orthodoxy, and have rendered the international community incapable of reversing recent hunger trends.

Though many finally wake up to the reality of racialized violence, ours are morally injurious times. Rightwing populism and white nationalism create leaders of immense intellectual and moral incompetence, such as Donald Trump of the US or Boris Johnsen of the UK, who cannot even protect their own from diseases and hunger. As Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on an astonishing defense bill of $738 billion – which marks a sweeping $21 billion increase over what Congress enacted for the 2019 fiscal year[8]–, we should not get our hopes up for the formulation of ambitious, or any, plans to address the hunger crisis.

Notes.

[1] Jonas Ecke is a lecturer at the Humanities and Social Sciences department at Ashesi University in Ghana. He worked for aid organizations in South Sudan, Liberia and Ghana.

[2] https://www.france24.com/en/20200728-coronavirus-linked-hunger-kills-10-000-children-per-month-says-un

[3] https://www.thenation.com/article/world/uganda-aid-debt/

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-african-nations-are-teaching-the-west-about-fighting-the-coronavirus?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker&utm_social-type=earned&fbclid=IwAR3de9L-A3fcRIhaolQ9iHr8HphSjRa5azhTh5-F-HHCrbV18-yFt8u49Yo

[5] https://www.gatesfoundation.org/what-we-do/global-development/polio

[6] BBC News | AFRICA | Aids to kill ‘one in two Africans’

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