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World Food Program: Act to stop coronavirus famine

April 23, 2020

The coronavirus will lead to a famine of "biblical proportions" unless aid can reach those in dire need immediately, warns the UN agency. But the pandemic is only amplifying famine's causes, which also need tackling.

Helpers distributing aid to people in Dhaka
Image: DW/Harun Ur Rashid Swapan

Richard Ragan is responsible for feeding a city of one million people. But it's no normal city — it's a camp, and the population is made up of Rohingya refugees. Keeping them supplied meant 24,000 people working in the camp and thousands of delivery vehicles coming and going daily. Then along came the coronavirus.

"Today we've got maybe 1,000 people going into the camps, sometimes fewer. Around 400-500 vehicles," explains Ragan, country director for the World Food Program (WFP) in Bangladesh. "We're moving food to the camps because we are trying to stockpile. We are seeing prices for staples go up by as much as 30% to 40%. For people who are really living on the poverty line, it's really tough."

Beyond the camp's walls, in the rest of Bangladesh, there are 40 million without sufficient food. Ragan reckons COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns will add 20 million more. Worldwide, the United Nations' World Food Program is concerned the pandemic could double the number of people suffering starvation to 265 million. If these people made up a country, it would be the world's fifth largest by population.

World Food Programme's country director Richard Ragan in one of the organization's trucks.
Richard Ragan is working to stockpile food for refugees in BangladeshImage: World Food Program

Read more: Bangladesh' garment industry risks collapse

Coronavirus as a catalyst

The calculation comes after the WFP released its Global Report on Food Crises. Over 233 pages it lays out the struggles of hundreds of millions of people across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe are facing to get enough food. Addressing the UN Security Council, the head of the WFP David Beasley said the world is facing "multiple famines of biblical proportions" if events continue as they are.

COVID-19 has accelerated the plight of people across the globe. The report highlights the main drivers of starvation in 2019 — conflict, weather extremes and economic shocks. Locusts are also ravaging crops and vegetation across Africa and the Middle East.

People battling these events already have nothing to fall back on, whether they move to refugee camps or stay put. When a virus like this strikes, the WFP says, they are left completely open.

Read more: Africa risks severe hunger crisis

It is affecting different regions in different ways. Lockdowns in Africa are preventing day laborers and farmers, already living on or below the breadline, from being able to harvest food or earn any money. Many islands in the Caribbean, which depend on food imports and tourism, are facing steeply rising costs and lost income as the virus disrupts transports and shipping.

But even in this difficult picture, particular points jump out, especially for the WFP's Chief Economist Arif Husain. "There are 30 million people out there in places like Yemen, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso and South Sudan, who almost completely rely on WFP food assistance to stay alive," he says.

"These are the people we are really concerned about. If we're not there to help them, no one is. They will die. As our Executive Director told the UN Security Council on Tuesday, we could be looking at 300,000 people dying every day for three months unless rapid action is taken to shore up food assistance for them."

The need for swift action is shared by Ragan in Bangladesh. "If you're a rickshaw worker or a day laborer, right now life is really tough," he says. "They don't have the cushion that we have in the West."

Aid organizations need money now

Desperate residents in Kenya waiting for food supplies
The coronavirus outbreak has compounded the plight of millions of people already living in poverty and hungerImage: picture-alliance/AP/B. Inganga

Just at the time people require more assistance, funding and donations to aid organizations are drying up. Wealthier countries, which would normally step in to provide support to the WFP, are busy trying to mitigate possible recessions as they begin to come out of their own lockdowns.

Against this backdrop, the WFP is trying to persuade donor countries to contribute funding as soon as possible, so it can gather food and resources to help mitigate the crisis. "Altogether we need some $12 billion (€11 billion) for this year," says Husain.

"But its critically important that we receive $1.9 billion now so we can quickly bring forward food and cash assistance for at least the next three months in fragile places for the 30 million plus people in dire situations."

A need for solidarity

The money alone will only be the start to getting starvation numbers down, according to the WFP. The organization is also calling for solidarity and efforts to help aid workers and end conflicts. Stopping fighting would allow aid workers to get to more people and eliminate one of the main causes for people facing starvation. 

"Stopping wars would be a huge step forward," argues Husain. "We need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all the people out there who are on the edge of starvation, so they can get the assistance that they need."

For Ragan, help from the government is proving vital. "You're not even one generation removed from widescale famine in Bangladesh," he explains. "They remember famine."

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