World on the brink of a ‘hunger pandemic’: coronavirus threatens to push millions into starvation

Romila, 35, walked miles to reach the water-distribution point in Burigoyalini.

Cyclone Amphan, which struck western coastal areas of Bangladesh on May 13, 2020, was a major disaster compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. Oxfam partner Shushilan delivered food, drinking water, and other essentials to many of the people in greatest need.  Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Poor communities around the world are sending a clear, urgent and repeated message: “Hunger may kill us before coronavirus”. Combined with ongoing conflicts, spiraling inequality, and an escalating climate crisis, the pandemic has shaken an already broken food system to its foundations, leaving millions on the brink of starvation.

There is no place or excuse for famine in the 21st century. In the past months, we have taken extraordinary measures to try and bring the number of Covid-19 cases to zero. Now, we need a similar massive effort to reduce hunger to zero.

Fueling hunger in an already hungry world

In our deeply unequal world, millions of people are living in, and dying from, hunger every year. In 2020, 690 million people were estimated to be food insecure, of which 135 million suffered crisis level hunger or worse.

This crisis is not about a lack of food. These devastating hunger levels are a symptom of a broken food system that has allowed millions of people to go hungry on a planet that produces more than enough food for everyone.

The coronavirus pandemic has added fuel to the fire of this growing hunger crisis. It has exacerbated existing inequalities and vulnerabilities while pushing millions of people into food insecurity as a result of spiraling unemployment and the economic disruption caused by the disease.

The dramatic slowdown in the global economy, coupled with severe restrictions on movement, has resulted in mass job losses globally over the last few months. With no income or social support, millions of people cannot afford enough to eat. The International Labour Organization estimates that the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs have been lost because of the pandemic, with women and young people especially hard hit. Up to half a billion people could be pushed into poverty as a result.

Smallholder farmers are the backbone of local food systems in many developing countries. They have been severely affected by lockdown restrictions limiting their ability to access their land, to plant or harvest crops, or access markets to sell their produce or buy seeds and tools. Yet throughout all of this, farmers and food workers were the true heroes, toiling as frontliners in fields and factories to provide food. But all too often they worked in dangerous conditions for poverty pay –despite giant food companies making millions in profits.

On every continent women are likely to be the first to go hungry whilst bearing the responsibility of feeding their families. They make up a significant proportion of groups such as informal workers or smallholder producers that have been hit hardest by the economic fallout of Covid-19. Moreover, they are often the most vulnerable within these vulnerable groups because of the systemic barriers they face such as discrimination in land ownership and pay. Added to this is women’s unpaid care and domestic unpaid care workload, which has risen dramatically in recent months as a result of illness and school closures

Even short-term famine can have a devastating long-term impact on a country and inhibit its economic progress for generations. People affected by chronic hunger and malnutrition are statistically more likely to live in lifetime poverty.

Extreme hunger hotspots

Among countries and regions where the food crisis is most severe and getting worse because of the pandemic, some are particularly concerning: Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Venezuela, the West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Haiti. But new hunger hotspots are also emerging. Middle-income countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil are experiencing rapidly rising levels of hunger.

More than 34 million people across the worst-affected countries are facing severe-to-extreme levels of food insecurity, some approaching famine-like conditions.

Urgent action is needed now

In 2020 the UN had warned of famines of 'biblical proportions’ as a result of Covid-19 and the measures to contain it, projecting the number of people in crisis level hunger would rise to 270 million before the end of the year, an 82% increase since 2019.

Already 174 million people have reached that level and are at risk of dying from malnutrition or lack of food. This figure is only likely to rise in coming months if nothing is done immediately.

Since the pandemic started, Oxfam has reached 14 million of the world’s most vulnerable people with life-saving assistance, working together with 694 partners across 68 countries.

Please support our work and help us do more.