Covid-19 vs. Hunger: Which is More Lethal?
Wed, April 21, 2021

Covid-19 vs. Hunger: Which is More Lethal?

 

The global poverty rate this year could eliminate the three years of progress made in ending all forms of poverty. / Photo by Africa Studio via Shutterstock

 

Governments have raced to contain the global spread of Covid-19 even before the World Health Organization warning came out, saying that no country should make the “fatal mistake” of assuming that it won’t get cases. Some government leaders have also emphasized the importance of public health and have implemented lockdowns despite knowing its economic impact.

 

Saving lives from Covid-19 vs. saving lives from poverty

Forbes Asia’s chief economics commentator Yuwa Hedrick-Wong believes that although it is a pious sentiment, it doesn’t mean it’s right. The tradeoff is not about saving human lives over the economy but saving lives from Covid-19 versus saving lives from global hunger and poverty. This most especially applies to the most vulnerable and poorest people.

The World Bank, for instance, projects that the effect of the pandemic is that it could push 40 to 60 million people in the world into extreme poverty, with the “best estimate” being 49 million. Such an increase in global poverty would be the first time for more than 20 years.

The international financial institution defines global poverty as the share of population living on less than $1.90 a day, estimating about 736 million people around the world are now living in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, nearly half of the world’s population survive on less than $5.50 a day. It added that in a more pessimistic scenario, the global poverty rate this year could eliminate the three years of progress made in ending all forms of poverty. These efforts include improving the quality of life standards of people. The World Bank warns that the economic impact of the health crisis could set back these hard-fought gains.

In new research conducted by the King's College, London and the Australian National University, the authors explained that more than one-third of the new poor will come from the least developed nations in South Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa.

 

Remittances sent home by migrant workers are supposed to be the main source of capital flows in low-income countries. / Photo by Syda Production via Shutterstock

 

Covid-19 repercussion: hunger pandemic

The World Food Programme, a food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security, warned that the world repercussion of Covid-19 may even be more deadly than the coronavirus. That is, it could lead the world into a hunger pandemic with the possibility of multiple famines. People who lost work due to coronavirus shutdowns are staying in their households while struggling to survive without means to feed the family. Tourism takes a beating and global remittance flow has begun to decline.

Remittances sent home by migrant workers are supposed to be the main source of capital flows in low-income countries. Countries that are most affected due to a decline in global remittances are Pakistan, Tonga, Nigeria, Haiti, Egypt, and South Sudan.

The lockdowns implemented by governments may have halted the movement of people but it also surged the unemployment rate. Some 26 million workers in the US, for instance, filed jobless claims from the government. The same thing is happening in high-income countries, such as Europe and the UK.

 

 

Food crisis and locust swarms

World Food Programme’s executive director David Beasley told The Guardian they are not referring to people “going to bed hungry” but the extreme status of extreme conditions. People are heading towards the “brink of starvation” and if governments will not act on it, people will die, he warned. The organization refers to it as a “food catastrophe.”

Even before the pandemic, the World Food Programme boss was already appealing to donor countries to increase the food relief fund of the poorest countries as natural disasters and conflict are putting a strain on the food system. He added, “I was already saying that 2020 would be the worst year since the second world war.” He backed it with the forecast the organization made last year.

Not to mention the swarms of locusts that hit East Africa this year. It has put about 70 million people at risk of food crisis. Then, the pandemic that no one expected to happen but has taken the world into uncharted territory. Combine all these and that would be a “perfect storm.” This is why he calls it widespread famine.

 

Word hunger and prevalence in undernourishment

More than 820 million (one in every nine) people in the world did not have enough to eat in 2019. Out of 7.6 billion people in the world, about 815 million or 10.7% suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2016. This is according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 2017, the prevalence of undernourishment grew to 10.8% and remained the same in 2018.


The FAO also shows that the prevalence of undernourishment in 2018 was highest in Eastern Africa at 30.8%, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (22.8%), and Africa (19.9%). It also published that child and maternal undernutrition contributes to 45% of deaths in children under five and obesity and overweight contribute to 4 million deaths worldwide.

Given the forecast increase in the poverty level, it would not be impossible to see that poverty-associated premature deaths in many low-income nations will increase.  Rising poverty will also likely lead to higher maternal mortality.

 

 

The organization further states that economic downturns and slowdowns are relevant to the quest to eradicate malnutrition and hunger. Although the economy rebounded in most regions after the sharp 2008 to 2009 global economic downturn, said the recovery was short-lived and uneven. As of 2019, the real GDP per capita growth of Africa was at 0.31%, Asia 3.7%, Latin America and the Caribbean -023%, Northern America and Europe 2.01%, and Oceania 1.43%. The real GDP per capita growth is challenged in regions with the highest levels of malnutrition and food insecurity, FAO added.

This is why Beasley said that if we consider the extreme conditions, the supply chain will break down and workers cannot go into fields to tend the crops. He believes that everyone is in this together and we can work to stop widespread famine. However, we have to act smartly and quickly.

Health and economy are interlinked. We know the basic truth that infant mortality and malnourishment negatively affect life expectancy too. It would, therefore, be a challenge for policymakers to strike the delicate balance between health systems and the economy.