EDITORIAL: A combined report of a number of United Nations (UN) agencies, which has found that the Covid-19 pandemic has so far caused an estimated 18 percent increase in the number of people facing hunger, has dealt yet another blow to the organisation’s efforts to ensure global access to food by 2030. The UN is often criticised, and rightly so, for its inability to stop needless wars and exploitation of poor countries by rich countries. But it is the only organisation with a truly global footprint and continues to be important not just because of the obvious lack of an alternative. Its outreach enables its aid programmes, for example, to be far more effective than perhaps all other such efforts put together. And it was able to bring out the report about the increase in hunger as a result of the pandemic so quickly because it was contributed to and jointly published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It goes without saying, of course, that plans to meet the 2030 deadline were already badly off course when the pandemic came. But that does not mean that the UN was not able to get a lot of countries to do a lot of things to reduce food insecurity. Now, as a result of all the lockdowns all over the world, most of them have had to go through the painful experience of watching so much of their good work undone. In just one year, millions of people have fallen back below the poverty line and much more of the world’s population is vulnerable to food shortages. The coronavirus experience has been hard across the middle and lower income groups, who have little or nothing set aside even for even rainy days, much less a year-long trauma with no end in sight yet.
As expected, while the increase in hunger is widespread the economic downturn has hurt poor countries the most. But that is not all. “The Covid-19 pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg,” warns the report, because “more alarmingly, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities forming in our food systems over recent years as a result of major drivers such as conflict, climate vulnerability and extremes, and economic slowdowns and downturns.” Then there’s also the fact that most countries will struggle to reverse most such trends even once the pandemic subsides because they will be forced to put whatever money they can get their hands on into rebuilding their economies; and development goals like poverty alleviation and food security will have to take a back seat at least as far as direct funding requirements are concerned.
The situation seems particularly grim for countries like Pakistan where inflation, particularly food inflation, is still pretty high while the unemployment rate is taking its sweet time coming down even though the economy reopened a while ago. The government has come out with an impressive expansionary budget that has put a smile on many people’s faces for the time being, but it will struggle to put its muscle where its mouth is unless both revenue and exports somehow really surprise to the upside. So the prospect of growing public discontent, especially at the bottom of the food chain where the biggest bulk of our population lives, cannot entirely be written off just yet.
For the last few months almost all countries have counted on the success of the global vaccination drive to help bring things back to normal by the end of the year. But now, with the fourth wave of the coronavirus gaining strength, and governments not willing to listen to scientists’ advice and hold back any longer, there’s no telling if another wave of forced lockdowns isn’t just around the corner. If it is, then next year’s rise in the number of hungry people will be much steeper because big chunks of the middle classes who have been barely holding on by the skin of their teeth will also cave in.
These are ominous signs that should force governments across the world to give food security more urgent attention than they had planned to even a few months ago. Such problems quickly lead to hunger and starvation, which is the oldest catalyst for social unrest in the world. The UN is doing a very important job by collecting and disseminating such data, because this will help governments stay ahead of the curve despite all their constraints.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021