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COVID-19 helping to fuel global hunger

‘How do you tell a hungry man to sit at home?’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

A Haitian woman sells mangoes and avocados in the street. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — With the coronavirus continuing to infect scores of people daily worldwide, the number of people experiencing acute hunger is expected to skyrocket globally, and some partners of the Presbyterian Hunger Program say the economic ramifications of the pandemic already are hurting the ability of people around the globe to feed themselves and their families.

In India, “hunger is really rampant,” partially because of multiple lockdowns that have occurred due to COVID-19, said Paul Raja Rao Valaperla,  who chairs Chethana, the PHP Joining Hands network in that country. “We have a lot of malnourishment,” especially among women and children.

Around the world, the number of people facing acute food insecurity could rise to 265 million in 2020, a near doubling from 2019’s estimated 135 million people, according to a recent projection from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

The projection was released in conjunction with the latest Global Report on Food Crises, a project of WFP and 15 other humanitarian and development partners.

In the report’s foreword, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The number of people battling acute hunger and suffering from malnutrition is on the rise yet again. … And the upheaval that has been set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic may push even more families and communities into deeper distress.”

Calling for action, Guterres went on to say, “We must redouble our efforts to fight hunger and malnutrition.”

This is an issue that should be on everyone’s radar, even as the United States grapples with problems of its own, said Valery Nodem, PHP’s international associate for hunger concerns.

Valery Nodem is Presbyterian Hunger Program’s international associate for hunger concerns.

“When we talk about loving our neighbors, it’s recognizing when our neighbors are in trouble as we are ourselves,” he said. “The world has gone through a lot of crises and we can only survive this crisis if we remember that we need to work together.”

Loving our neighbors and thinking about our neighbors around the world “would be the best start,” Nodem said.

As lockdowns are put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, people in various parts of the world — including India, Nigeria and Haiti — find themselves in a precarious position. Many people depend on being able to go out each day to make money, often in the informal sector, and to secure food and other necessities.

“How do you tell a hungry man to sit at home? How do you tell him to observe social distancing when he has like 20 mouths to feed? He must go out (in order) to eat,” said Peter M. Egwudah, program coordinator for PHP partner CISCOPE in Nigeria.

Likewise in Haiti, where people also have been advised to stay in, “if they don’t go out to have something to eat, they will die,” said Fabienne Jean, who coordinates FONDAMA, the Joining Hands network in Haiti.

The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), said, “What we are seeing now, in the midst of the pandemic, is theologically, an apocalypse — an uncovering or laying bare of inequities and unaddressed systemic problems that contribute to food insecurity and increase the vulnerability of peoples. The crisis precipitated by the pandemic has deepened that vulnerability and pushed many communities perilously closer to famine.”

As part of its international response to pandemic, PDA has awarded nearly $1 million in grants in 56 countries. Many of the grants are being used for water, sanitation and hygiene projects to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — but some address food insecurity.

The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus directs Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

“PDA’s release of emergency COVID grants, placed in the hands of local leaders and agencies, is intended to support short-term efforts to alleviate hunger,” Kraus said. “We have in these efforts paid particular attention to areas experiencing famine or chronic food insecurity. Later interventions, as the pandemic continues and as resources become available, will focus on continuing our collaborative work with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, addressing famine in current and emerging locations with strategies to build long-term food security.”

Unlike in the United States, where many people can receive stimulus checks and unemployment benefits to get by during hard times, many developing countries do not have a strong safety net to support people when COVID-19 and other stressors hit, Nodem said.

Right now, “poverty is increasing, food is getting harder and harder for people to get to for a lot of families and when this is over, rebuilding the economy will be really, really hard, and the poorest people will be the most impacted by it,” he said.

In India, many segments of society are suffering from pandemic-related joblessness, said Valaperla, director of BIRDS, a rural development organization. They include people who would typically go out each day to earn a living: tradesmen, such as barbers, carpenters and cobblers; people who work at shuttered shops and factories; and people who are migrating back to their home villages because work is no longer available for them in the cities.

The migrants become a burden on their families in the villages because there’s nothing to eat, proper shelter is lacking, and COVID-19 precautions, such as social distancing and hand washing, may not be taking place, he said. Valaperla also noted that children are suffering because schools have been closed and young girls are being married off, even before the age of 13.


Paul Raja Rao Valaperla hands a prize to a woman at an event celebrating rural women farmers. (Photo by Valery Nodem)

To help, BIRDS has distributed groceries, masks and sanitizer to families in various parts of the southeastern coastal region of India, such as Nandyal and Vijayawada.

In various countries, hunger is not only being fueled by the pandemic but by other factors, such as conflict and instability, extreme weather, economic shocks and crop pests, according to the Global Report on Food Crises.

The World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, noted in April that even before COVID-19, the year 2020 was on track to see the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, given wars in Syria and Yemen, a deepening crisis in South Sudan, locust swarms in Africa, more frequent natural disasters and an economic crisis in Lebanon impacting millions of Syrian refugees, according to a UN news release.

Add COVID-19 on top of that, and “we are looking at widespread famines of biblical proportions,” Beasley said in a news story in the Guardian.

A Haitian farmer transports her goods to the market. (Contributed photo)

In Haiti, one way that PDA is helping is by providing continued funding for an agricultural program that helps people to grow food to eat and sell. The focus is on vegetables, such as cabbage and tomatoes, “because it takes less time and less water and is more practical for people who don’t have a huge piece of land,” Jean said.

Hunger was a problem in Haiti before COVID-19 and the pandemic is having many side effects, including preventing groups from outside Haiti from coming in to help at past levels, Jean said. She also noted that some relatives who used to send money home to family members in Haiti have lost jobs in the United States and elsewhere, cutting off those funds.

“COVID-19 is going to hurt the world in a way, but for Haiti, it’s going to be worse because before the COVID-19, we had all the problems. We had all the crises, and now it’s made things worse,” Jean said.

The Global Report on Food Crises notes, “Territories that are home to 135 million acutely food-insecure people in need of urgent humanitarian food and nutrition assistance are the most vulnerable to the consequences of this pandemic as they have very limited or no capacity to cope with either the health or socioeconomic aspects of the shock.”

Furthermore, “These countries may face an excruciating trade-off between saving lives or livelihoods or, in a worst-case scenario, saving people from the (coronavirus) to have them die from hunger,” the report notes.

In Nigeria, the pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s ability to make money and to secure food in a country already reeling from pre-existing problems, such as poverty and the Boko Haram insurgency, Egwudah said.

“The impact (of COVID) is so huge, either in the city or at the community level,” he said. “The poverty incidence is so significant even before the COVID, but the COVID has added a new dimension to it.”

For example, while communities are locked down because of the pandemic, “people are not allowed to go out to make a living and go about their normal way of doing business,” he said. Often, “these are people who earn less than a dollar in a day … and they live in locations where social distancing cannot even be practiced, for instance, because it’s densely populated.”

Also, in some instances, people cannot even drive from one state to another state, an impediment for people who work in logistics or who sell food items, such as sorghum. “The impact is so, so huge,” Egwudah said.

The COVID-19-related closure of Nigerian airports also has had a negative impact, especially on people who work at businesses nearby, such as shops, salons and restaurants, he said.

But on a more positive note, people have started taking steps to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

With the help of a PDA grant, CISCOPE has been able to do public health messaging in Nigeria’s Adamawa state on the importance of things like social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. It also has distributed hand sanitizer and soap.

Some people also have started to make their own masks and sanitizer to combat the virus. “People are becoming aware of it and trying to adapt,” Egwudah said.

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing. They are both part of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries.

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