The coronavirus pandemic is causing a hunger crisis, and at the same time revealing vast wealth inequality
By Randy Rosenthal
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a recurring headline that hardly anyone is talking about. It has never been the main story, up at the top and in large font. But it’s been there on page two or three, first in April, and then again in June, and more recently in September. I’m referring to the impact of COVID-19 on hunger, both in the U.S. and globally.
Before the pandemic began, there were about 135 million people in the world who faced crisis levels of hunger. According to a report by the UN World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, that number will double over the next year, to some 270 million who will be “marching towards the brink of starvation.” In a briefing to the UN Security Council on September 15, Beasley stated that the World Food Programme (WFP) needed about $5 billion in order to prevent 30 million people from dying of starvation. Not over the next few years, but by the end of this year. Now.
Back in April, Beasley warned the Security Council that the world was on the verge of a hunger pandemic. People in India, Colombia, and Kenya were more concerned that they would die from hunger than from the coronavirus. Donors and countries heeded the call and passed a $17 trillion fiscal stimulus package, and the UN was able to help 100 million people in 88 countries. For this work, the World Food Programme was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet in September Beasley warned that a new wave of hunger would sweep the globe and overwhelm already unstable nations reeling from violent conflict, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Specifically, he mentions the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Yemen, currently the site of the gravest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Along with food insecurity, overall poverty rates are also drastically increasing, a reversal of three decades of progress. Nearly every nation’s economy has shrunk since April, but it is the poorest countries that have been hardest hit, those that cannot afford large setbacks. India, for example, suffered a 24% shrinking of its economic output between April and June, with about 120 million jobs lost. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 160 million people in Asia alone will be under the poverty line this year. Latin America, too, is seeing hunger rise due to economic disaster. There, according to a UN study, 45 million more people will fall under the poverty line, prompting warnings that Latin America must brace for “a lost decade.”
Yet most of the news we read regarding the pandemic is about the U.S. and Europe. There are reports on unemployment and death tolls, but many articles have headlines like these: “Can our summer vacations still be saved? What will restaurants do to stay in business once winter comes? Is it safe to fly? Or to take a train?” These questions and topics are all valid concerns, as the virus has affected each of us in our own way, and we’re all just trying to survive and stay sane. And yet these lifestyle issues clearly pale in comparison to the threat of starvation faced by 270 million people.
Seeing that nations have hesitated over committing more funds, David Beasley pivoted and addressed individuals to help. Specifically, he appealed to billionaires to pitch in, calling out those who have made “billions upon billions” during the pandemic. What does he mean by this reference? Well, just recently, a survey by the Swiss bank UBS and consultancy group PwC showed that the combined worth of the world’s 2,189 billionaires now stands at $10.2 trillion. The survey also showed that since March, when the coronavirus lockdown began, their wealth has surged to ever higher levels. How can this be possible, when so many people around the world are unemployed, sick, and suffering? The answer is stocks. Most of the gains are due to investments in technology and healthcare companies involved in developing vaccines and therapies against the coronavirus. The gap between the wealthiest .01% and everyone else has been steadily growing over the past decade, but in the words of the survey’s authors, “the COVID-19 crisis just accentuated the divergence.” In fact, the wealthiest Americans have become 170% richer.
Interestingly, and somewhat reassuringly, there has been a corresponding increase in donations by billionaires to charitable causes, with $7.2 billion given between March and June. Nearly $5 billion came from U.S. billionaires, who dwarfed their counterparts in China, India, Australia, and the UK—the survey made no mention of Russian billionaires, despite Russia having more billionaires than any other country. This philanthropy is perhaps why Beasley emphasized that he is not criticizing billionaires—after all, he’s only asking for $5 billion. “I am not opposed to people making money,” he said in his UN briefing, “but humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes.”
And yet for many of us, it doesn’t feel like the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Why is that? Is it because we don’t actually see hunger? That our news media endlessly covers Donald Trump and political pundits, but not devastated areas in Africa? If we saw just a few of the 20 million people in crisis in Yemen, would we demand our government do more to stop the fighting there?
Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the media, especially because these stories on hunger are out there—that’s how I’m compiling this article. But these are not sexy stories. The crisis is often happening to other people, people far away, in parts of the world that are in dire situations anyway. And the causes of the global hunger crisis are complex—a combination of lost wages, disruption of food supply chains, the collapse of oil prices, the evaporation of the tourist industry, and continued disasters arising from climate change such as droughts, floods, and locust plagues are all contributing factors.
It’s so complicated, it seems like there’s nothing we can do. So, we think, we might as well meditate, read more articles about politics, watch sports, and plan our next vacation. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can also donate to organizations like Buddhist Global Relief, which since the COVID crisis erupted has been providing monthly donations of $3,000 to Feeding America, a central hub for U.S. food banks. This is in addition to its regular projects assisting poor communities around the world.
We can share stories about global hunger on social media. We get ourselves riled up at systemic racism and political maleficence, but we can express outrage about the hunger crisis too, condemning the larger economic system that allows a few to live in luxury while millions starve. We may not be billionaires, but each of us can help in our own way.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.