Nearly 745 million expected to live in extreme poverty by end 2021

In 2020, nearly a tenth of the world population – close to 811 million people - went hungry.

As per a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, titled State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, world hunger increased dramatically between 2019 and 2020, after remaining nearly unchanged for five years.

The pandemic has further exacerbated inequality in the world – the estimated number of people projected to live in extreme poverty by the end of 2021 is 745 million people. This is an increase of 100 million since the start of the pandemic.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - MAY 20: Social persons distribute tea and biscuits to hunger homeless people near Nigambogh Ghat, Jamuna Bazar on May 20, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - MAY 20: Social persons distribute tea and biscuits to hunger homeless people near Nigambogh Ghat, Jamuna Bazar on May 20, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) (Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Young children have been immensely affected and their futures are getting destroyed – as per the World Food Programme, 150 million children do not have access to school meals.

If bold action is not taken to accelerate the process of eradication of hunger, around 660 million people may still remain hunger in 2030.

The paradox is that amidst this hunger, government around the world are increasing their military spending. This is also the main reason why nearly 100 million people in the 23 countries that are conflict-torn are faced with worsening levels of food crisis.

Conflict, climate crisis and Covid-19:

Global anti-poverty organisation Oxfam has said that 155 million people in 55 countries have been pushed to extreme levels of hunger this year. As many as 11 people are likely dying of acute hunger every minute – more than Covid-19 fatalities.

Further, the number of people living in famine-like conditions has increased six-fold to more than 5,20,00. The situation will turn worse unless governments act quickly and tackle food insecurity on a war footing.

As per an Oxfam report titled The Hunger Virus Multiplies, three Cs have accelerated hunger and malnutrition in the world – conflict, the climate crisis and the economic fallout of Covid-19. These have worsened the situation in existing hunger hotspots across the world and created newer areas of hunger.

Conflict: Conflict is the primary reason why 100 million people across 23 countries are hungry. The world’s hunger hotspots – Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen continue to suffer from ongoing conflicts in their countries. Countries affected by conflict have the highest percentage of the population who cannot afford a healthy diet and suffer from moderate or severe food insecurity.

Conflict affects all aspects of the food production cycle – from sourcing raw materials to harvesting, financing and supplying to distribution, preparation and consumption. Agricultural land is often destroyed and trade and movement of goods restricted, affecting the availability and affordability of nutritious food.

Warring parties often turn hunger into a weapon of war, in some cases depriving citizens of basic food and water, killing livestock, bombing markets and impeding humanitarian relief.

Women and children suffer the most during a conflict as they have to go out and fetch food, and are in the danger of getting assaulted in the process. They are also often the last ones in the family to get whatever food is remaining.

COVID: The economic fallout of the pandemic, triggered by extended lockdowns and business and market closures, has led to a spike in hunger. Globally, poverty has increased by 16 per cent while economic activity has reduced by 3.5 per cent.

In 2020, alone, 33 million workers worldwide lost their jobs. Further, inequalities in the distribution and access to vaccines have further intensified hunger, primarily due to the monopoly of large pharmaceutical companies and inaction from rich countries.

According to the World Health Organisation, 11 billion doses would be needed to ensure that 70 per cent of the world is vaccinated. The report suggests that, at the current vaccination rate, low-income nations will take 57 years to fully vaccinate their people.

Climate crisis: The world is seeing increasing droughts, storms and floods and other climate-related disasters. This has pushed nearly 16 million people in 15 countries to hunger. This is more so for countries in Central America, South East Asia and the Horn of Africa.

The year 2020 saw USD 50 billion worth of damages from extreme weather disasters alone. Last year was also among the hottest years on record, while climate disasters have nearly tripled since 1980. Around one extreme weather event was recorded every week.

The irony is that vulnerable and poor countries, which contribute least to global warming and climate change, are the most affected. Strong cyclones have led to unprecedented levels of a locust plague in East Africa, disrupting food supply chains and affecting the availability and affordability of food in strife-ridden countries such as Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

Rise of extreme hunger hotspots

While hunger has intensified in existing extreme hotspots such as Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Venezuela, emerging hunger hotspots include India, South Africa and Brazil – nations battered by the pandemic.

Brazil’s death toll due to the pandemic is the third-highest worldwide. The per cent of people living in extreme poverty in the country has nearly tripled – from 4.5 per cent to 12.8 per cent. The pandemic has also exacerbated inequality – indigenous people, black people and those living in the rural areas have been hit the hardest.

While more than 10 per cent of black households were living in hunger by the end of 2020, 11 per cent of households headed by women suffered from hunger. Further, among the middle class as well, the percentage of people living with some form of food insecurity has nearly doubled - from 20 per cent in 2018 to nearly 35 per cent by the end of 2020.

India, too, has seen the pandemic put a spoke on any plans of alleviating poverty. Nearly 190 million people were undernourished in India. Consumption of nutritious food such as lentils has gone down by 64 per cent, while that of green vegetables has gone down by 73 per cent.

Mass unemployment brought on by the pandemic has seen the average family lose more than 60 per cent of its income since the pandemic. In the month of April 2021, alone, nearly 8 million jobs were cut.

Further, school closures have meant that nearly 120 million children did not have access to mid-day meals – an important source of nutrition and often the only nutritious meals children receive in a day.

In South Africa, a country that was once food secure, as well, hunger is catching up. More than 24 million people were living in higher levels of food insecurity when compared to the 13.7 million people before the pandemic.

The path to ending hunger

It is not impossible to end hunger. This, Oxfam notes, can be done if governments end conflicts and allow aid agencies to help save lives. They need to take urgent steps to tackle the climate crisis, forge peace by promoting women in leadership roles and bringing more women in to lead the pandemic response.

Further, governments must also build fairer and more sustainable economy, while tackling the key drivers of hunger and trying to bridge the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor.

“Saving just a day and a half’s worth of our global military spending – the equivalent of $8 billion– would be enough to fund the entire UN emergency food security appeal,” the report suggests.