WASHINGTON - The next global pandemic may very well be a hunger pandemic as a result of the fallout from coronavirus.
While the World Health Organization warns that stringent guidelines need to stay in place to combat the spread of COVID-19, fellow United Nations agency World Food Program (WFP) believes that it will lead to an uptick in global poverty and starvation, and the response to the virus itself may end up killing more people by the end of 2020.
Last week, WFP's executive director David Beasley cautioned the UN Security Council that the risk of large-scale famine in much of the developing world was now "of biblical proportions" as a result of the global pandemic.
"While dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic," Beasley told the council. "There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself."
Even before the outbreak, 2020 was on track to be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II due to the ongoing wars in places like Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, compounded with natural disasters and desert locust swarms across Africa.
That grim reality has been exacerbated by efforts to curb the coronavirus, which has led to cratering economies, mass job losses and crashing oil prices.
"We can confidently state that levels have risen. Quarantine regulations, shipping challenges, and overall supply chain issues are compounding and adding to previously existing starvation conditions," Ian Bradbury, CEO of the Canada-based humanitarian organization 1st NAEF, told Fox News.
"We can expect more global deaths due to secondary impacts of COVID-19 than the virus itself — the World Food Program currently estimates that 265 million will be on the brink of starvation by the end of the year."
At the beginning of 2020, some 130 million were already facing dire levels of hunger. That figure could now more than double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year.
As it already stands, 820 million people globally are considered undernourished, according to UN statistics, with 22 percent of children younger than 5 classified as "stunted" as a consequence of malnutrition.
Almost 700 million people, roughly 9 percent of the planet's population, are "severely food insecure" and nearly two billion – one in four – are assessed as "moderately or severely food insecure."
That statistic is expected to rise as the planting, harvesting and transporting of food items has been dwindling, and the almost 400 million children who rely on schools for meals can no longer attend. Experts have cautioned that while rashes of hunger have long been experienced in different pockets of the globe, never before has it been experienced on such a global scale.
"My father was killed in the war, and my brother and I work to care for our family. The [impact] that this sickness has created on us means that everything has become more expensive, and so the money we make is not enough to meet our monthly needs," Suleiman Hussein Suleiman, a 22-year-old logistics worker from Hemo village in Syria, decried.
"We lived in hardship before, and now it is even harder. It is hard for us to find food every day. If things go on like this, the people will erupt like a volcano — they will say, 'Better that we go back to work and die of coronavirus than that our children starve to death!'"
In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, barely recovered from years of fighting ISIS, many are expressing the renewed challenges of struggling to find work and the loss of dignity that comes with that.
"The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact [on us] as it has on many countries around the world. We announced strict measures from the very start of the pandemic and put in place a series of regulations that helped contain the number of our cases and avoid overwhelming our health system," said Jutiar Adil, a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). "Financially, we're feeling the pinch."
And in the already famished and crumbling Venezuela, which has been embattled with closures and stay-at-home orders, locals are further feeling the pangs of daily life.
"Besides hunger, as there is no food, nor gasoline which truly complicates life, tension and even paranoia has become an everyday issue for me and others I talk to, friends and other people. The quarantine is taking a big toll in my life besides everything else I have been dealing with," said Aidiana Martinez, a 41-year-old living in the capital, Caracas. "[The food shortages] are getting so bad that it is hard to explain."
Maria Teresa Herrera, a 39-year-old administrator in Caracas, concurred that everyday decisions are a weighing up of life and death.
"I live in constant fear, thinking if I get contagious, I will pass it to my daughter, but if I don't go to work, my daughter will starve. This is terrifying," she continued. "It is complicated to find food, first because of the new schedule for stores ... and also the total lack of gasoline, affecting even the transportation chain of the limited food that is distributed. I am terrified this pandemic can go on for way more time, then we will die from starvation and COVID."
Lilia Martinez, a 45-year-old banker in Caracas' Baruta Municipality, stressed that "poverty had reached infrahuman levels before this crisis, and now there is no immediate or near future light of recovery."
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan many contend that life has become untenable.
"It has been three months now that I haven't gotten any salary from office, and I am hardly surviving, and it is getting more difficult to come over home expenses. My brother's business is also going below zero because of the lockdown," said Zaki Nadry, a 27-year-old Kabul-based government official. "Poverty has become worse as you see more beggars in the streets. Daily laborers are suffering because of no daily projects, which have made them turn to beggars as well."
In many countries, especially those in Africa that have largely avoided a direct hit from the virus, the tight restrictions have induced a sense of sheer frustration. While the likes of Zimbabwe have only documented 32 confirmed coronavirus cases and four deaths, the fear of overwhelming the already fragile health care system has meant a continued government-mandated lockdown — and subsequently, thousands going to bed hungry.
In Kenya earlier this month, dozens were injured and two people died in a stampede in a rush to obtain food handouts. In Colombia, those starving are tying red clothing items outside their homes to signal their empty stomachs.
Dominique Burgeon, director of Emergency and Resilience Division of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has also issued warnings urging governments to do everything possible to keep trade avenues and supply chains functioning, underscoring that "now more than ever, we need international cooperation and supple arrangements to preserve the fluidity of global food markets."
Food security experts are also lamenting that funding from donor nations, organizations and individuals is fast drying up due to economic assault that the novel pathogen has cast on much of the world, meaning that the monies necessary to deliver humanitarian relief in some of the hardest-hit areas may all but fall apart.
The WFP estimates that they require an immediate injection of $350 million to keep operations afloat, bemoaning that only about a quarter of the sum been met.
"We have to keep our food security programs running, not only because of increased needs from COVID-19 but also because war and violence continue and the needs that existed before all of this are still there," noted Elizabeth Shaw, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "In East Africa, it is now the most important planting season. We have to get the seeds and farming tools out to people now, or they won't have things to eat come July or August."
Nonetheless, the widespread lockdowns and travel prohibitions also present unprecedented logistical hurdles for many charities and nongovernmental organizations that are no longer able to reach the hungry and those most in need, especially in far-flung places.
It is anticipated that the impact will not only be felt everywhere from Africa and Asia to the Middle East and Central America, but will deeply scar Americans struggling to make primary ends meet.
"From East to West and everywhere in between, coronavirus has left its mark on our global society, and food insecurity is a real issue here at home. Millions of hard-working Americans live paycheck to paycheck and rely on every dollar to keep their families fed and lives afloat," added New York-based Assemblyman Mike LiPetri.
"When you take away their income and don't provide real economic relief, the situation goes from manageable to dire real fast."