The novel coronavirus has overwhelmed public health systems and jolted economies around the world. Now it is poised to spark a global hunger crisis as well. After decades of progress in the battle against poverty and hunger, the job losses, supply chain disruptions, and other economic dislocations caused by the pandemic threaten to push millions of people from food security into food insecurity—and toward outright starvation. International institutions and their member states must act decisively to prevent that outcome. Otherwise, they risk setting in motion a costly and chaotic era of rising hunger and poverty.
In April, I warned the United Nations Security Council of a coming “hunger pandemic.” The effects of coronavirus-related economic crises will be felt nearly everywhere. While nations will, appropriately, first consider the interests of their own people, a world with no common purpose is a world that will invite many problems. Our common purpose should be defeating this virus, preventing it from causing a hunger pandemic, and building on the gains against poverty and hunger that have defined the bulk of the last 30 years.
The pandemic arrived at a delicate moment. Decades of relative success in fighting poverty and hunger had begun to slow and, in some cases, reverse by the time the coronavirus hit. In the last 30 years, rates of extreme poverty fell by more than half, from around two billion in 1990 to about 700 million people in 2015, thanks to private-sector-fueled growth and stronger social safety nets, among other factors. Hunger dropped by about 25 percent in that same time period. But in the last four years, the number of people facing chronic hunger—that is, people who go to sleep hungry every night—has risen, from 796 million to 821 million. So, too, has the number of people who are acutely hungry—those who suddenly find themselves on the brink of starvation after having generally had enough food. Acute hunger has grown nearly 70 percent in the past four years, from 80 million people to 135 million. Nearly a billion people suffer from either chronic or acute hunger today.
The biggest factor driving this recent rise is conflict. Sixty percent of hungry people live in war-torn countries. These are places such as Syria and Yemen, where years of war have not only driven up hunger but also set back progress for generations. Climate change, too, has played a significant role in pushing certain populations into hunger, especially in countries such as Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where climate extremes have combined with existing conflicts to exacerbate food insecurity.
With the COVID-19 pandemic compounding these existing crises, our estimates suggest that the number of people suffering from acute hunger could nearly double by the end of the year, to 265 million people. An additional 300 million people will become nutrient deficient—lacking sufficient vitamins and minerals in their diet to stay healthy—according to an estimate by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
The coronavirus fuels hunger by disrupting global and national economies…