The COVID-19 pandemic is causing world hunger to rise at an unprecedented rate, according to a statement Monday from the World Food Programme (WFP), which is planning to launch the largest humanitarian response in its history.
The WFP plans to reach 138 million people with emergency food aid this year, an increase of 41 million people from the year before. The United Nations agency estimates that the pandemic will cause a total of 270 million additional people to need food aid in the 83 countries where it works — an increase of 82% from 2019.
The new warning comes as the COVID-19 infections are accelerating in countries less equipped to face the pandemic.
“The front line in the battle against the coronavirus is shifting from the rich world to the poor world,” said David Beasley, WFP’s executive director, in a statement.
“Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos,” he added. “Without it, we could see increased social unrest and protests, a rise in migration, deepening conflict, and widespread under-nutrition among populations that were previously immune from hunger.”
Global hunger has been on the rise in recent years due to the impacts of climate change, conflict, and economic mismanagement. In 2019, 821 million people suffered from extreme hunger and malnutrition, and an additional 1.3 billion people faced periods of moderate or severe food insecurity.
The WFP has projected that these pre-existing trends would push another 130 million people into life-threatening hunger. The COVID-19 pandemic has more than doubled this prediction because of widespread disruptions to economies and food systems.
As social distancing measures are put in place around the world, farmworkers have been unable to harvest crops, food markets have been curtailed, and supply chains have faced slowdown. To make matters worse, people are losing their sources of income and remittances are tapering, making it hard to afford food, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
In a perfect storm of setbacks, farmers in parts of Africa and Asia have also lost their crops to miles-wide swarms of locusts.
The WFP reports that food insecurity has tripled in Latin America, and increased by 135% in West and Central Africa.
Governments can take action to curb this rise in hunger by expanding social safety nets, providing cash transfers to populations, and supporting farmers with resources during the crisis, according to the WFP.
UN agencies, meanwhile, will be providing emergency humanitarian assistance and supporting farmers throughout the world.
“This unprecedented crisis requires an unprecedented response,” Beasley said. “If we do not respond rapidly and effectively to this viral threat, the outcome will be measured in an unconscionable loss of life, and efforts to roll back the tide of hunger will be undone.”