Even as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, a far more deadly crisis, a hunger pandemic, looms. The United Nations World Food Programme has warned that the coronavirus outbreak could aggravate the existing global hunger crises. Currently, around 135 million people face acute food shortages. This figure could exceed 265 million by the end of this year if the international community does not swing into action to step up food production and improve its distribution. Conflict, economic crisis and climate change pushed millions of people in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti among others into a devastating hunger crisis in 2019, the WFP’s Global Report on Food Crises points. Parts of South Asia, which suffered from drought and locust infestation, last year suffered severe hunger as well. Such suffering can be expected to deepen in the coming months as the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic and measures to halt its spread begin to unfold. The WFP has warned that the world faces a “hunger pandemic of biblical proportions.” This could turn out to be the worst humanitarian catastrophe since the Second World War.
In order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, governments have imposed lockdowns to enforce social distancing. Lockdowns have shut down economic activity. This means that millions of people are without the means of earning a livelihood and are not in a position to purchase food. Agricultural activity has slowed. The production and availability of grains, fruits and vegetables is already falling and could worsen in the coming months. Disrupted supply lines are preventing food from reaching consumers. Thus, lockdowns are imperiling our food security. Food shortages, hunger and starvation have the potential to trigger violent food riots.
While it is the coronavirus pandemic that is consuming the energies of governments the world over, they cannot afford to ignore the hunger pandemic. The latter could take a very heavy toll in human lives. Stepping up production of food is important but as we have seen in India, overflowing granaries have not helped tackle hunger as the distribution process is seriously flawed. Governments must ensure that food is not hoarded or diverted into the black market. The battle against the looming hunger pandemic cannot be won without international co-operation. There will be some countries that will be tempted to use their food supplies to gain leverage over others. This amounts to using food as a weapon and is unconscionable.