The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization has released its annual report showing that the “worst-case” global hunger and starvation scenarios warned about early in the pandemic have in fact come to pass; this is happening in large part because of policies put in place in response to the pandemic, as well as the direct effects of the pandemic itself and also climate change impacts
Public policy 101 teaches that policymakers should consider all reasonably foreseeable impacts of a given policy. In the case of pandemic policy choices, however, our policymakers and political leaders have been singleminded in their focus on stamping out the virus — no matter what it takes and no matter who suffers in the process.
Lockdown policies are believed by most policymakers to reduce spread of the virus. There is significant academic debate about this issue, which a later essay will explore. But what is clear is that lockdown policies have vast negative impacts on human health and well-being, including causing an unprecedented increase in global hunger.
The United Nations puts out an annual report on global hunger. Their 2020 report, released a few months after the pandemic began, warned of the potential impact of the pandemic and related policies. They stated then that up to 120 million additional people would be at risk from acute hunger and starvation if the world did not change its approach to the pandemic.
A year later the UN issued a follow up report: The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 (here’s a good article summarizing the report). They found that indeed the worst-case scenarios have come true.
2020 saw the single biggest increase in global hunger “in decades”: 117.6 million more people is the median estimate and up to 161 million at the higher range of the estimate (Figure 1). This is up from an increase in 2019 of 16.9 million — already terrible as an increase, rather than a decrease, but literally 1/10th of the increase we saw in 2020 due to the pandemic and related policy choices.
The foreword to the new report states: “This year, this report estimates that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020 — as many as 161 million more than in 2019.”
The report acknowledges that at least part of this increase is due to the pandemic itself, but also highlights the many policy choices that have significantly exacerbated the impact on global hunger.
For example, it states (p. 57):
[T]ravel restrictions are causing severe labour shortages in food and agriculture production and processing industries, leading to production and supply disruptions. Moreover, school closures have led to missed meals normally provided through school food and nutrition programmes. As a response, some countries have started door-to-door meal delivery service to children. The COVID-19 pandemic and related containment measures have exacerbated other drivers, widened inequalities, and exposed structural vulnerabilities of local and global food systems.
They also state: “Closure of markets, including informal markets, also exacerbates the unaffordability of healthy diets.”
And (pp. 56–57):
Migrant workers have been affected by lockdowns, trade disruptions, layoffs
and illness, although remittances sent to their home countries show a smaller decline than previously predicted.
Women have been particularly hard hit by the economic and social fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has pushed more women into extreme poverty than men, with women also facing higher job losses, shrinking work hours and greater care burdens As highlighted in Chapter 2, the gender gap has grown even larger in the year of the pandemic — with the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity being 10 percent higher among women than men in 2020, compared with 6 percent in 2019. (see Chapter 2, Figure 6).
But the COVID-19 pandemic is not only having multiple demand-side effects on access to food; there are also supply-side effects that are negatively affecting people’s capacity to access food and healthy diets. These include border closures, travel restrictions, quarantines, and market, supply chain and trade disruptions. These negative effects restrict people’s physical access to sufficient, diverse and nutritious sources of food, especially in countries hit hard by the pandemic or already affected by high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.
In sum, we are seeing a global catastrophe unfold before our eyes and policymakers and elected officials in Western countries are doing almost nothing about it. They instead insist on “hard” policies, lockdowns and related measures, to single-mindedly focus on the virus. For example, New Zealand recently (August 2021) instated a new three-day nationwide lockdown because of a single new case of Covid-19 in that country.
Reading the UN report about an additional 118 million global poor entering into food insecurity and worse from policies like these, and their obvious and foreseeable impacts around the world, reeks of rich-nation policy myopia and “groupthink.”
We will look back on this time and hang our heads in shame. Or at least we should if we have compassion for other humans, regardless of where they happen to be born and into whatever economic state they are thrust by life’s circumstances.