Coronavirus pandemic could lead to 'famines of biblical proportions,' UN food agency warns

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The global coronavirus outbreak threatens to worsen the existing food crises around the world and create “a hunger pandemic,” the chief of the United Nations Food Program warned earlier this week.

David Beasley, director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), said the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a worst-case scenario in at least three dozen countries – about 265 million people – pushed "to the brink of starvation."

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“There are no famines yet,” Beasley said during a virtual UN security council session on Tuesday. “But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”

Beasley said even before the coronavirus outbreak, the world was “facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”

The wars in Syria and Yemen, the desert locust swarms in East Africa, along with more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns, are just some of the existing factors food-insecure regions are facing, according to Beasley.

“We’re already facing a perfect storm,” he said.

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Starvation was already threatening 135 million people around the world before the health crisis, according to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises released Monday. The coronavirus could cause the number of people affected worldwide to nearly double, Beasley said.

Beasley also warned lockdowns and economic recessions could lead to major income loss among the working poor, limit the aid wealthier nations can provide, and disrupt supply chains. Countries dependent on tourism will see that revenue vanish while collapsing oil prices will impact lower-income countries like South Sudan, where the trade accounts for 98.8 percent of total exports.

“There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself,” he said.

In response to the crisis, Beasley proposed a “global ceasefire,” urging all parties in crisis-torn regions to allow the WFP “swift and unimpeded humanitarian access” to all communities.

Citizens buy tomatoes from a vegetable market in the commercial capital Lagos, Nigeria. Lockdowns in Africa limiting the movement of people in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus are threatening to choke off supplies of what the continent needs the most - food. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Citizens buy tomatoes from a vegetable market in the commercial capital Lagos, Nigeria. Lockdowns in Africa limiting the movement of people in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus are threatening to choke off supplies of what the continent needs the most - food. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

He also asked donors to accelerate $1.9 billion in funding already pledged to help build stockpiles and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. He also requested an additional $350 million for logistics and transportation systems.

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“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies,” Beasley said. “The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely — and let’s act fast.”