COVID-19: The Hunger Virus

COVID-19: The Hunger Virus

2020 will go down in history as the year of the global pandemic. COVID-19 is a global public health crisis: millions have been infected worldwide, and hundreds of thousands of people have died. The disease is not the only deadly threat the pandemic has highlighted, unfortunately. COVID-19 has worsened the hunger crisis in some of the world’s worst hunger hotspots – and even created new ones. By the end of this year, as many as 12,000 people could die every day from COVID-19 related hunger. To put it in an Irish context, it would equate to the entire population of Galway city dying in just one week. It is critical that all governments work to end the hunger crisis and build fairer, stronger and more sustainable food systems.

Even before COVID-19, hunger was on the rise with nearly 820 million people estimated to be food insecure in 2019. Of that figure, 149 million suffered crisis-level hunger or worse. However, in the wake of the pandemic, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of people experiencing crisis-level hunger will reach 270 million – an increase of 82 percent on last year. This crisis is being felt most acutely in 10 extreme hunger hotspots: Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Venezuela, the West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Haiti. These 10 countries and regions alone host 65 percent of the people facing crisis-level hunger.

The pandemic is not only worsening conditions in established hunger hotspots but creating new ones in countries including Brazil, South Africa and India, where instability has been exacerbated by the pandemic and restrictions to control its spread. The situation in both emerging and established hunger hotspots is worsening because of pandemic-triggered mass unemployment, restrictions on food producers and a broken food system, diminished humanitarian aid, the climate crisis and systemic extreme inequality, and ongoing conflict.

In the face of the pandemic, a common thread across the globe has been a dramatic slowdown of the economy. This coupled with movement restrictions has resulted in mass job losses and lost income, particularly in the informal economy. The ad hoc social measures frantically implemented by governments in wealthy countries cannot be replicated in lower-income countries to protect their populations from the financial impacts of the virus. The same movement restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the virus are hindering the ability of food producers to manage crops, access markets and sell their produce. Women make up a large percentage of the informal economy; many of them are also small-scale farmers. Not only are they being heavily impacted by the loss of income due to the pandemic, they are often the first to go hungry in a family unit.

Diminished humanitarian aid is a symptom of both the economic slowdown and the movement restrictions around COVID-19. To date, just 24 percent of $7.3 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 has been funded. In practice, this means that the WFP halved their rations for 8.5 million people in Yemen, while Afghanistan has received just six percent of the money it needs to fund food programmes. Along with diminished aid from other countries, the climate crisis has made farming increasingly difficult. Higher-than-average annual temperatures and extreme weather negatively impact crop yield, putting an estimated 183 million at risk of climate change-related hunger.

Conflict and inequality are systemic issues which exacerbate the growing hunger crisis. Eight of the 10 established hunger hotspots are affected by high levels of violence and insecurity. Those who are forced to flee violence often leave without food, and find themselves in areas where farming is dangerous and travelling to markets potentially fatal. Additionally, hunger can be weaponised and warring parties can use food as a tool of submission and power. For example, Yemen relied heavily on imported food before the war. Now it is experiencing massive food shortages due to a blockade and its food supply system is broken.

As the world works to bring the number of those infected with COVID-19 to zero, we must also work on bringing those affected by hunger to zero. While thousands will starve because of the virus, the biggest food and drink companies have paid out over $18 billion to shareholders since the beginning of the year.

Inequality is at the root of the hunger crisis and Oxfam is urging governments to:

  1. Provide emergency assistance to save lives now
  2. Build fairer, more resilient, and sustainable food systems
  3. Promote women’s participation and leadership
  4. Cancel debts to allow developing countries to scale up social protections
  5. Support the UN’s call for a global ceasefire
  6. Take urgent action to tackle the climate crisis


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