Normally Dassasgo market in eastern Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, bustles with a thousand stalls selling all manner of food, trinkets and goods.
But when the pandemic came, everything started to fall apart. Last month, officials closed the market down to stop the infection, turning hundreds of traders onto the street.
Now Aminata Yanogo, a seasoned vegetable seller, has to dodge police beatings along Ouagadougou’s dusty roads to make ends meet.
Before the lockdown, Mrs Yanogo was making about 9,000 CFA (£12) a day selling bags of chillies and peppers. Now she is lucky to make a tenth of that. “If we don’t sell anything, our children will starve. If we stay at home, my children will have to go outside to beg,” she says. “We are suffering.”
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide but far worse could be in store for the likes of Aminata. Catastrophic food shortages and mass starvation are threatening greater devastation than the virus itself.
According to a report released by the UN last week, the number of people in acute food insecurity – the point where people are facing famine – is expected to double from 135 million to 265 million by the end of 2020, unless dramatic steps are taken.
The world is facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions” in “about three dozen countries” killing up to 300,000 people a day, warned David Beasley the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP).
A perfect storm
Experts say a multitude of factors are coming together to in a ‘perfect storm’ for many developing countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as in countries already facing crises, like Yemen, Venezuela and Congo.
All the things that were driving global hunger before the coronavirus – wars, climate change, refugee crises, a dearth of sanitation, locust swarms in east Africa and devastating water shortages in southern Africa and Pakistan – are still here.
But now the pandemic and accompanying national lockdowns are throwing tens of millions who lived on the edge into poverty and battering delicately balanced food supply chains.
Lockdowns and government mishandling of the crisis are dramatically reducing people’s ability to buy basic goods and limiting farmers’ access to seeds, pesticides and labour.
At the same time, any fiscal headroom poor countries had before the crisis is rapidly closing as swathes of the international economy goes into free fall. Plummeting oil prices is laying waste to the national budgets of states already facing major malnutrition and security problems like South Sudan, Chad and Nigeria.
On top of this, international tourism has ground to a complete stop and overseas remittances are drying up fast as family members in the developed world, cease to make money. Some European money transfer companies have reportedly seen a decline of between 80 and 90 per cent in payments made to Africa.
“In wealthier countries, there is at least the potential for the government to step in as the wage provider of last resort but poorer countries lack the fiscal space to do this,” says Dr Amrit Amirapu, Lecturer in Economics, University of Kent.
“Even if [poorer] governments were able to pay workers, most workers in these countries are informal so the government has no record of them and the process of getting them funds is more challenging.”
“The world is not running out of food,” Elwyn Grainger-Jones, Executive Director, CGIAR, a global partnership of groups researching food insecurity, told The Telegraph.
“Global food prices have been coming down for several years and we’ve had good harvests over the last few years. The main problem is access.”
Access to food
Nowhere is the problem of access seen more clearly than in India.
When Prime Minister Modi announced a sudden nationwide lockdown for his nation’s 1.3 billion people on March 24, with only four hours notice, tens of millions of informal labourerswho had migrated to cities became unemployed almost instantly.
Without financial savings or sick pay, almost one-quarter of the Indian workforce and their families suddenly had no form of income or means to purchase food or medicines. India does not lack food. The government is sitting on 87 million metric tonnes of grain stock, enough to provide one sack of 100kg rice or wheat for every single family member who has a ration card.
However, with Indian state borders closed and supply chains coming to a standstill, the government is struggling to reach almost all of those in need. A poll of over 11,000 migrant labourers in India by the Stranded Workers Action Network found 96 per cent had not received any government food rations.
The International Labour Organisation says food aid is already critical for roughly 380 million Indians working in the informal economy, such as rickshaw drivers or street vendors.
The situation will probably get far worse for many Indians. Dipa Sinha, an economist who teaches at Ambedkar University in Delhi, has said if the lockdown continues up to 70 per cent of the city’s population could require food aid by mid-May.
The story is also grim in Afghanistan. In the western city of Herat, Saleh Mohammad has lost his job because of Covid-19. After fleeing fighting in his home in Kunduz province, he settled in a camp on the outskirts of the city and took daily labouring jobs. These have now ended with the city’s lockdown.
“We are dealing with death here. Look at this, this is what we’ve managed to get today,” the 56-year-old said showing a meagre measure of rice meant to feed his family of six. “I sent my son to beg and I bought this from that money.”
Riots and stampedes over the lack of food have already been seen across the world from Niger and Kenya to India and Venezuela. As hunger spreads, it will most likely have major political ramifications as class divides are exposed and people begin to fight over land and resources.
What could make the hunger crisis worse?
Experts say there are two things could make the hunger crisis far worse.
First, some fear that as the pandemic puts more strain on national resources, key food producers – like India, Indonesia, Thailand and Russia – will start to block exports. This would be catastrophic for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which rely heavily on imports of staple foods like rice and wheat.
“In Kenya, we import about 90 per cent of our rice, mainly from Asia. And we import about 70 per cent of our wheat mainly from Ukraine and Russia,” says Timothy Njagi, Senior Research Fellow at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development in Kenya.
Any problems with that international supply could make food prices soar on the streets of Nairobi, Dakar or Kinshasa, experts say.
Thankfully, while some countries like Belarus and Ukraine have toyed with minor export restrictions on grain, so far only Vietnam and Cambodia have placed major limitations on rice exports.
As a rule, closed borders or trade barriers make for catastrophe. Take the extreme example of North Korea, which has a long history of major food shortages and famine. Over 12 million North Koreans – about half of the population – are chronically food-insecure, according to the UN. The secretive country imports vast amounts of food from China, its main trade partner.
In January, North Korea shut its 880-mile border with China, in an extreme effort to keep the virus out. Reports indicate the border may now be partly reopening to obtain essential goods.
However, this closure has most probably wreaked havoc on food supplies. This month the WFP said that North Korea was among 39 countries that would suffer chronic food insecurity because of the pandemic and would be worst hit after Nigeria, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
The second thing experts fear is what happens if the virus spreads into rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.https://cf-particle-html.eip.telegraph.co.uk/13b5940f-9536-42ad-897e-5ef8a85a9382.html?ref=https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/climate-and-people/hunger-makes-us-forget-disease-famines-threaten-greater-devastation/&title=%E2%80%98The%20hunger%20makes%20us%20forget%20the%20disease%E2%80%99:%20Famines%20threaten%20greater%20devastation%20than%20coronavirus
Food production in poorer countries is far more labour intensive than in the mechanised West. Farmers do not have combine harvesters to plough their fields and must do it by hand. Ageing and vulnerable farmers often make up the backbone of the economy and local food supplies in developing countries, making food systems very vulnerable to shock from diseases.
“We are yet to see [Covid-19] spread in rural areas. If that happens, we’re going to see a huge disruption in Kenya’s rural food supply chains in three months,” says Mr Njagi. “It would be dire.”
Back on the road outside Dassasgo market, Adama Kabore is fretting about what he can take back to his wife and child.
Normally, the 28-year-old sells handbags in the market but now he barely manages to sell anything. For the last few weeks, he’s managed to scrape together about 1,000 CFA (£1.33) to buy food for one evening meal for his family. But today, he hasn’t managed to find anything.
“The hunger is making us forget the disease,” he says.
- Additional reporting by Oumar Zombre in Ouagadougou, Joe Wallen in New Delhi, Ben Farmer in Islamabad and Nicola Smith in Taiwan.