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.

If we don’t act now, up to 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic before the end of the year, perhaps more than will die each day from the disease.

In the past months, we’ve 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 2019, 821 million people were estimated to be food insecure, of which approximately 149 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

We have identified 10 countries and regions where the food crisis is most severe and getting worse because of the pandemic: 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 55 million people in seven of the worst-affected countries are facing severe-to-extreme levels of food insecurity, some approaching famine-like conditions.

You'll find some of them detailed on this map.

Urgent action is needed now

The UN has 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 will rise to 270 million before the end of the year, an 82% increase since 2019.

More people could die of coronavirus-driven hunger than from the virus itself.

Since the pandemic started, Oxfam has reached 4.5 million of the world’s most vulnerable people with food and clean water, working together with over 344 partners across 62 countries. You can help us do more.