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WFP Chief Warns of Hunger Pandemic As COVID-19 Spreads: Statement to UN Security Council
This is a transcript of remarks by David Beasley, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director, as delivered to today’s virtual session of the UN Security Council on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Protecting Civilians Affected by Conflict-Induced Hunger.
NEW YORK – Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but I’d like to lay out for you very clearly what the world is facing at this very moment. At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic.
In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the Coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons.
Such as the wars in Syria and Yemen. The deepening crises in places like South Sudan and, as Jan Egeland will no doubt set out, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel region. The desert locust swarms in Africa, as Director General Qu highlighted in his remarks. And more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns. The economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees. DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia. And the list goes on. We’re already facing a perfect storm.
So today, with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe.
Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.
This sounds truly shocking but let me give you the numbers:
- 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry, and as the new Global Report on Food Crises published today shows.
- There are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. That means 135 million people on earth are marching towards the brink of starvation.
- But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.
On any given day now, WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive.
If we can’t reach these people with the lifesaving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19.
In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation. In many places, this human suffering is the heavy price of conflict.
At WFP, we are proud that this Council made the historic decision to pass Resolution 2417 in May 2018. It was amazing to see the council come together. Now we have to live up to our pledge to protect the most vulnerable and act immediately to save lives.
But this, in my opinion, only the first part of the strategy needed to protect conflict-riven countries from a hunger pandemic caused by the Coronavirus.
There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself. This is why I am talking about a hunger pandemic.
It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.
Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply – this will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia just a name a couple. The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries such as Ethiopia, where it accounts for 47% of total exports. The collapsing oil prices in lower-income countries like South Sudan will have a significant impact, where oil accounts for 98.8 percent of total exports. And, of course, when donor countries’ revenues are down, how much impact will this have on lifesaving foreign aid?
The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict.
WFP and our partners are going all-out to help them; we’ll do everything we possibly can. For example, we know that children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, so we are prioritizing assistance to them.
Right now, as you may know, 1.6 billion children and young people are currently out of school due to lockdown closures. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals – you can only imagine when children don’t get the nutrition they need their immunity goes down. Where nutritious school meals have been suspended by school closures, we are working to replace them with take-home rations, wherever possible.
As you know, WFP is the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world and even more so now for the global effort to beat this pandemic. We have delivered millions upon millions of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization. We are also running humanitarian air services to get frontline health professionals doctors nurses, and humanitarian staff into countries that need help, especially while passenger air industry is basically about shut down.
But we need to do so much more, and I urge this Council to lead the way.
First and foremost, we need peace. As the Secretary-General recently said very clearly, a global ceasefire is essential.
Second, we need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all vulnerable communities, so they can get the assistance to them that they need, regardless of who they are or where they are. We also need, in a very general sense, humanitarian goods and commercial trade to continue flowing across borders, because they are the lifeline of global food systems as well as the global economy. Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed. It also means resisting the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire.
WFP is working hand in glove with governments to build and strengthen national safety nets. This is critical right now to ensure fair access to assistance and help maintain peace and prevent rising tensions among communities.
Third, we need coordinated action to support lifesaving humanitarian assistance. For example, WFP is implementing plans to pre-position three months’ worth of food and cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. We are asking donors to accelerate the $1.9 billion in funding that has already been pledged, so we can build stockpiles and create these lifesaving buffers, and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. You understand exactly what I’m talking about.
We are also requesting a further $350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. They will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to the frontline humanitarian and health workers, as needed and strategically.
Excellencies, two years ago the Security Council took a landmark step when it recognized, and condemned, the devastating human toll of conflict paid in poverty and hunger. Resolution 2417 also highlighted the need for early warning systems, and today I am here to raise that alarm.
There are no famines yet. 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.
The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast. I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe. So Mr. President, thank you, thank you very much.
The United Nations World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, saving lives in emergencies, building prosperity and supporting a sustainable future for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.
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