While the world’s foremost politicians, celebrities, epidemiologists, and journalists are abuzz about the coronavirus pandemic, there’s another issue looming in the shadows. A “hunger pandemic,” warned the head of a United Nations food agency, is likely to bring “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”
Before coronavirus controlled the news, you’ll recall that countries such as Lebanon, Yemen, Venezuela, Lebanon, and Syria were suffering from high rates of chronic hunger. In war-ravaged Yemen, 20 million people are food insecure and 3.2 million women and children suffer from acute malnutrition. Research from the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that if the WFP cannot provide the life-saving assistance needed to the Yemenis, upwards of 300,000 people could starve to death every single day for a three month period. Additionally, many UN programs that assist impoverished Yemenis could shutter because of major cuts in US aid. Although the UN and other international bodies have taken steps to combat world hunger, the coronavirus pandemic has the power to stall or even reverse that progress.
This worldwide increase in hunger is the result of a global economic recession. Loss of income, the decline in tourism, and the collapse of oil prices are all contributing factors. Due to schools being canceled, students around the world whose only guaranteed meals were from their school’s cafeteria are left hungry. It has long been predicted that countries that rely on food imports, especially the least developed countries, are the most at risk in a world food crisis.
But it’s not only developing countries that the coronavirus is taking a toll on. The pandemic has caused a rise in food insecurity in the United States. In April, 20.5 million American jobs were lost, leaving millions of families not knowing how they were going to get their next meal. The most obvious solution – expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – was an option, but was hindered by a partisan divide. Democrats argued that investing in the food stamps program, one proven to decrease hunger levels, was a safe bet and would cost much less than the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act, a $2 trillion stimulus bill to provide economic relief. Republicans, however, believe that Democrats are using the coronavirus to leverage a permanent expansion of the food stamps program and, by extension, the welfare state. Although the Trump administration has agreed to a short-term increase in food stamp benefits, this compromise leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to food insecurity in the coming months and beyond.
While the world lies in wait for the nightmare of the coronavirus to end, there is always the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel: the development of a vaccine by autumn, a miracle drug such as Remdesivir to help patients, and the possibility that social distancing works to flatten the curve so we can return to our normal lives. But for hundreds of millions across the globe, this nightmare has no end in sight as the hunger pandemic has the potential to continue on and worsen even after the coronavirus becomes a distant memory.
By Shreya Shivakumar