World famines of “biblical proportions” will be caused by coronavirus pandemic, warns UN

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Famines could settle in “about three dozen countries” in the worst case, said the executive director of the World Food Program (WFP) in a blunt speech on Tuesday. Ten of these countries already have more than a million people on the brink of starvation, he said.

He cited conflict, economic recession, declining aid and the collapse of oil prices as factors that could lead to vast food shortagesand called for swift action to avoid a disaster.

“While facing a Covid-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic,” David Beasley told the UN Security Council. “There is also a real danger that more people may die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself.”

WFP has already warned that 2020 will be a devastating year for many countries ravaged by poverty or war, with 135 million people facing hunger crisis levels or worse. Their updated projections almost doubled that number.

In addition to the 821 million people already chronically hungry, this scenario would push more than a billion people into dramatic situations.

The agency has identified 55 countries most at risk of starvation in its Annual Report on food crises, released this week, warning that their fragile health systems will not be able to cope with the impact of the virus.

“These countries can face an atrocious trade-off between saving lives or livelihoods or, in the worst case scenario, saving people from the coronavirus to starve them,” the report said.

Ten countries have been identified as particularly at risk, having experienced the worst food crises last year; Yemen, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti.

Most of these countries have so far been spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, the epicenter moving from China to Europe to North America, but the condition of their health facilities means that even relatively small outbreaks could be devastating. To date, more than 2.5 million cases of coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide.

“We don’t have time on our side”

Even before the coronavirus epidemic, the food supply of some of the most vulnerable regions of the world was directly affected by impacts such as crop failures and locust swarms.

Exceptional drought followed by extremely heavy rainfall significantly reduced the yield of seasonal crops in the Horn of Africa in 2019. These irregular weather and climate conditions also contributed to the worst locust invasion in 25 years, which further threatened the agricultural supply of the region.

Meanwhile, the combination of conflicts, weather-related shocks and crop pests had caused the worst global food crisis in Yemen, the agency said.

A large refugee camp on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

The new factors linked to the coronaviruses affecting each region were innumerable. “The closings and the economic recession are expected to cause significant income loss for the working poor,” said Beasley. Remittances abroad will also decrease sharply, affecting countries like Haiti, Nepal and Somalia, for example.

“The loss of tourism revenues will hurt countries like Ethiopia (and) the collapse of oil prices in low-income countries like South Sudan will have a significant impact,” he added.

He called on UN member states to act now, telling them, “There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to guarantee the access, avoid funding gaps and trade disruptions – we could face multiple famines of biblical proportions in a matter of months.

“The truth is that we don’t have time on our side, so act wisely – and act quickly,” he added. “I am confident that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and programs necessary to ensure that the Covid-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian disaster and a food crisis.”


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