By Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
A year and a half since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the global health crisis has quickly spiralled into an inflamed hunger crisis that has laid bare the staggering inequality in our world. The pandemic that has exacerbated the inequality now worsened hunger and starvation. What is disconcerting is that deaths from hunger are outpacing the virus. In other words, hunger has outpaced Covid fatalities. individual people facing unimaginable suffering. Ongoing conflict, combined with the economic disruptions of the pandemic and an escalating climate crisis, has deepened poverty and catastrophic food insecurity in the world’s hunger hotspots and established strongholds in new epicentres of hunger.
Based on the findings of Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, (IPC) the new Oxfam report, (published on 9 July 2021, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/
explore/research-publications/ the-hunger-virus-multiplies/) titled “The hunger virus multiplies: deadly recipe of conflict, Covid-19 and climate accelerate world hunger” reveals that today 11 people are likely dying every minute from acute hunger linked to three lethal Cs: conflict, Covid-19, and the climate crisis. This rate outpaces the current pandemic mortality rate, which is at 7 people per minute.
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) is an initiative to improve food security and nutrition analysis and decision-making. Food security agencies including governments use the IPC classification and analytical approach to measure the severity and magnitude of acute and chronic food insecurity and acute malnutrition in a country, providing decision-makers with a rigorous, evidence and consensus-based analysis to inform funding, programming, and policy. Oxfam is a global partner of IPC. There are five phases in the IPC Acute Food Insecurity Scale: None/Minimal, Stressed Crisis, Emergency, and Catastrophe/Famine.
Last year, the anti-poverty organization Oxfam had warned in its report “The Hunger Virus” that hunger could prove even more deadly than COVID-19. The most severe level of hunger has spiralled since the pandemic. Based on the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) 2021 and the most recent IPC analyses, this year, Oxfam report points out that 2 crores more people have been pushed to extreme levels of food insecurity, reaching a total of 15.5 crore people in 55 countries. As of 14 June 2021, more than half a million people (i.e., 521,814) are living in famine-like conditions and are on the brink of starvation (i.e., at Catastrophe Phase). At the end of 2019 when the pandemic broke, this figure was 84,500 – an increase in catastrophic hunger of 517.5%.
The conflict was the single largest driver of hunger since the pandemic began, the primary factor pushing nearly 10 crore people in 23 conflict-torn countries to crisis or worse levels of food insecurity. Some of the world’s worst hunger ‘hotspots’, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen continue to suffer from conflict and have witnessed a surge in extreme levels of hunger since last year. Despite calls for a global ceasefire to allow the world to focus its attention on battling the pandemic, the conflict has gone largely unabated.
Even as governments had to find massive new resource flows to fight the Coronavirus, global military spending rose by 2.7% last year – the equivalent of $51 billion – enough to cover the $7.9 billion 2021 UN humanitarian food security appeal six and a half times over. Arms sales spiralled in some of the most conflict-torn countries battered by hunger. For instance, Mali increased its arms purchases by 669% since violence escalated in 2012.
At the same time, the economic fallout of Covid-19 has deepened poverty and inequality. More than a year and a half after the Coronavirus pandemic was declared, the economic decline caused by lockdowns and closures of borders, businesses, and markets has worsened the situation for the most disadvantaged people and led to a spike in hunger. Global economic activity has declined by 3.5% and poverty increased by 16%.
Around the world, 3.3 crore workers lost their jobs in 2020. The pandemic led to mass unemployment causing $3.7 trillion in lost labour income – the equivalent to 4.4% of 2019 global GDP. Economic shocks fuelled primarily by the pandemic have pushed over 4 crore people in 17 countries to hunger – up from nearly 2.4 crore the previous year.
This is a near 70% increase over the previous year and does not account for the 300-crore people who could not afford a healthy diet even before the pandemic – a figure likely to increase this year. Globally, food prices have increased by almost 40% since last year, the highest rise in over a decade. This has been driven by increased demand for biofuels, lockdowns, and border closures that continue to disrupt food flows.
Food inflation is making food unaffordable for many people even when it is available. This is especially true for people in countries like Yemen or Haiti, which import most of their food and cannot offer subsidies, price control mechanisms, or cash transfers to increase people’s purchasing power.
Higher prices have not necessarily generated higher profits for food producers, especially small-scale farmers who could not afford to buy seeds and fertilizers or transport their produce to markets. Without adequate storage facilities or access to markets, farmers have been forced to sell at whatever price they could, even at a loss, or watch their crops rot. As a result, 88% of Nigerian farmers surveyed last August indicated they had lost half their income during the pandemic.
Agricultural day laborers also lost their income, since they were not able to get to the fields. The pandemic has also laid bare the greatest rise of inequality since records began. While small food producers lost their income, revenues of the top 10 food and beverage-producing companies increased by nearly $10 billion from 2019 to 2020. The increase in these corporate revenues alone would have been more than enough to pay for the 2021 humanitarian food security appeal.
Moreover, the most marginalized people including women, informal workers, the urban poor, and those living in informal settlements were the hardest hit by the pandemic. The global employment loss for women was 5%, compared to 3.9% for men. This cost women around the world at least $800 billion in lost income in 2020. An additional 4.7 crore more women worldwide are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021. One key lesson from the pandemic is that social protection programs for people in need – like cash or food assistance– are important tools to use in addressing hunger. However, globally more than 400 crore people, or over half the world’s population, lacked any social protection last year.
More than 400 weather-related disasters have increased hunger in communities, many of which are already battered by conflict and coronavirus. Severely disrupted food production has led to a 40% surge in global food prices, the highest rise in over a decade. This surge has contributed significantly to pushing tens of millions more people into hunger.
Last year, the world saw a record $50 billion worth of damages from extreme weather disasters exacerbated by climate change (including $6 billion in Honduras alone), which were the primary driver responsible for pushing nearly 1.6 crore people in 15 countries to crisis levels of hunger. Despite this, governments have delayed action to tackle the climate crisis to focus instead on the pandemic.
Our warming climate is increasing the frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters such as storms, floods, and droughts. The past seven years have been the warmest years on record, with 2020 one of the hottest. Yearly, climate disasters have more than tripled since 1980, with currently one extreme weather event recorded per week.
Agriculture and food production bore 63% of the impact of these climate crisis shocks, and it is vulnerable countries and poor communities, who least contributed to climate change, that are most affected. For example, in parts of east India hit by Cyclone Amphan last year, farmers lost their crops and fisherfolk lost their boats, and thus their main sources of income.
Similarly, in East Africa more and stronger cyclones last year have contributed to unprecedented plagues of desert locusts, leading to a major disruption to food supply chains, and reducing the availability and affordability of food for millions of people in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. The frequency and intensity of climate-fuelled disasters will erode the ability of people already living in poverty to withstand shocks. Each disaster is leading them in a downward spiral of deepening poverty and hunger.
Abnormal temperatures also linked to death. According to a study by Australian ‘s Monash University researchers, the extraordinarily hot and cold temperatures that are becoming more common as climate change accelerates are responsible for 5 million deaths globally every year. In India, nearly 7.4 lakhs ( cold related : 6, 55, 400, heat related 83, 700) excess deaths can be attributed to such abnormal temperature changes
Hunger has also intensified in middle-income countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have experienced some of the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections. In Brazil, extreme poverty nearly tripled and almost 2 crore people were pushed into hunger during the pandemic.
In India, millions of people are experiencing a severe lack of food. In 2020, nearly 19 crore people were under-nourished and over one-third of children under the age of five were stunted. People’s consumption of essential food staples like lentils fell by 64%, while their consumption of green vegetables plummeted by 73% in 2020. Over 70% of people reported having to reduce their overall quantity of food intake compared to their pre-pandemic eating levels.
Reduced income, poor implementation of social protection programmes, and school closures have fuelled hunger in India. A survey of 47,000 households across 15 states found that the average family lost more than 60% of its income since the pandemic due to massive job losses, especially in the informal sector. Nearly 8 million jobs were cut in the month of April 2021 alone. Additionally, the social protection system is failing those most in need.
The government relies on outdated 2011 Census data for calculating beneficiaries of its Public Distribution Scheme. As a result, 10 crore people entitled to receiving food rations were excluded from receiving much-needed assistance. It is estimated that only 57% of the population entitled to this assistance is covered. School closures were another key driver of hunger as nearly 12 crore children across the country who relied on schools’ mid-day meals could no longer receive food. With all schools shut and many of the meal programs halted, children were left without an important source of nutritious food
Actually, the worst is still yet to come unless governments urgently tackle food insecurity and its root causes head-on. It is unacceptable that starvation is often used as a weapon of war, with millions of people forced to flee their homes, their crops and livestock destroyed, and combatants denying them even the lifeline of humanitarian aid. The cautioning governments around the world, Oxfam GB Chief Executive Danny Sriskandarajah, said: “The world cannot stand by while global hunger levels soar and half a million people face starvation due to the confluence of unrelenting conflict, Covid-19’s economic fall-out, and a worsening climate crisis. Governments urgently need to do more to prevent conflict in the first place and to support those caught up in the crossfire, by providing funding and stepping into ensure aid agencies can get vital humanitarian assistance where it is needed.
The UN Security Council should hold to account all those who use this barbaric tactic.”
To prevent more people from being pushed into extreme poverty and hunger, Oxfam is calling on governments to build fairer, resilient and more sustainable food systems that work for all, provide emergency assistance to save lives now, to support social protection measures to help the most vulnerable and to waive the Covid-19 vaccine patents to ensure developing countries can vaccinate their people, guarantee humanitarian assistance reaches people.
It also suggests promoting women’s leadership in COVID-19 solutions, take urgent action to tackle the climate crisis: Ahead of this year’s Climate Summit in December, rich polluting nations must dramatically cut emissions, keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees, and help smallholder food producers adapt to climate change.
Governments must focus on funding urgent hunger response and social protection programs to save lives now, rather than striking arms deals that perpetuate conflict, war, and hunger. As equally important as stopping Covid-19 itself, is stopping it from killing more people through hunger.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.