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'Biblical' famines could double global hunger as a result of the coronavirus crisis, UN warns

Villagers fetch gunny bags containing food rations in Ayod county, South Sudan, where World Food Programme carried out a food drop of grain and supplementary aid on February 6, 2020.
Tony Karumba | AFP | Getty Images

Famines of "biblical proportions" are becoming a serious risk as the coronavirus crisis threatens to double the number of people nearing starvation, a U.N. body has warned. 

In projections released Tuesday, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) predicted that the number of people facing "acute food insecurity" stood to rise to 265 million by the end of this year, up from 135 million in 2019.

That would mean an additional 130 million people were "living on the edge of starvation," largely due to the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, with wages, supply chains and humanitarian aid under pressure as a result of the outbreak. 

The International Monetary Fund warned last week that the global economy was likely to experience the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, predicting global growth would contract by 3% this year because of the virus.

'A hunger pandemic'

Addressing the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, WFP Executive Director David Beasley said the world was facing "the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two."

"At the same time as dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are on the brink of a hunger pandemic," he said.

Beasley noted that the WFP currently offers food assistance to almost 100 million people, but warned that the coronavirus could make it difficult for them to be reached and urged the U.N. to provide more assistance.

Twenty million people at risk of starvation in Africa: Care USA COO
Twenty million people at risk of starvation in Africa: Care USA COO

"If we can't reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period," he said during a video conference. "This does not include the increase of starvation due to Covid-19."

Beasley requested $350 million in new funding to establish a network of logistics hubs that could keep global humanitarian supply chains moving. He also urged all those involved in conflict to provide "swift and unimpeded" humanitarian access to vulnerable communities.

"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," he said.

Last year, 10 countries impacted by conflict, economic crises and climate change were identified as most at risk of acute food shortages, with Yemen, Venezuela, South Sudan and Nigeria named as some of the worst-affected nations.

In 2020, Yemen was likely to suffer the world's worst food crisis, the WFP said, as a result of conflict, a macroeconomic crisis, pests and climate shocks.

Meanwhile, severe locust swarms across East Africa would "aggravate acute food insecurity" in the region, the report said.

Arif Husain, WFP's Senior Economist, said in a statement on Tuesday that the coronavirus crisis could be "catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread."

"It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage," he added. "Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock — like Covid-19 — to push them over the edge."