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Dubai: For two years, the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has grabbed the headlines. Since February 24, the debate over the impact of the Ukraine war on the global food supply has taken center stage. Meanwhile, yet another pandemic continues to take a heavy toll, but in a less visible way.

In a report published in 2021, the charity Oxfam noted that hunger has overtaken the pandemic as the biggest crisis facing the world. She said up to 11 people die from starvation and malnutrition every minute, compared to the global COVID-19 death rate of about seven people per minute.

It added that an additional 20 million people were pushed to extreme levels of food insecurity in 2021, bringing the total number of people affected to 155 million in 55 countries.

The United Nations recently announced that, after remaining stable for more than five years, the number of undernourished people globally has risen to more than 800 million – 10 percent of the world’s population.

The Covid-19 crisis is starting to emerge at a time when the number of people in dire need of food aid around the world is already increasing, according to Majed Yahya, director of the World Food Program office in the UAE and his representative in the Gulf. Cooperation Council.

“In fact, we have already seen this trend change in 2018, largely due to the effects of the multiplication and intensification of man-made conflicts, climate extremes occurring with greater frequency and intensity, and economic slowdowns taking hold in many parts,” he said. News.

It is estimated that the number of people suffering from chronic hunger worldwide rose – for the second year in a row – to nearly 690 million in 2019, before the start of the pandemic.

By 2020, that number had risen to 811 million as other contributing causes were exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19, which presented the world with a truly global emergency.

In the past two years, Yahya said, the pandemic has brought economies and supply chains to a standstill, decimated businesses and affected jobs and livelihoods, all while taking a devastating toll on the health and well-being of families and communities around the world.

“As we all continue to calculate the costs of the fallout, it has been the people least able to bear it who have suffered the most,” he added, referring to the millions of people who lived above subsistence before the pandemic.

In the Middle East, the number of “poor” due to the pandemic and related containment measures has risen to 115 million, which is a quarter of the region’s population. One of the main contributing factors was the sharp rise in unemployment.

In a region where 14 million people were already unemployed, the International Labor Organization estimated that about 17 million full-time jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020.

A Yemeni child receives humanitarian aid from the World Food Program in Taiz, the country’s third city. (AFP)

The situation of families who were already struggling to make ends meet was exacerbated by the lack of local food and the subsequent rise in prices, which made people less able to afford enough food, according to Yahya.

“These families have had to make difficult choices to support themselves, including skipping meals and compromising the quality and nutrition of what they are consuming,” he said.

Pandemic or no pandemic, food insecurity is a long-term global challenge. As noted by Laura Petrush, founder of the Migrant Integration Laboratory and author of At the Dawn of Humanity, the number of hungry people worldwide will continue to grow as humanity continues to exert unsustainable pressures on the Earth’s ability to produce. Enough food to increase its population.

“For humans to live according to the Earth’s limited capacity, it is necessary to make fundamental changes in our political and economic systems and our way of life,” she told Arab News.

Human needs already exceed the assimilation and production capacity of the planet’s ecosystems, according to scientists, who say environmental issues such as climate change and ocean acidification are symptoms of a more serious problem.

Nations in danger

* Afghanistan

The country is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet. Hunger and destitution have risen dramatically in the face of drought, conflict, COVID-19, the collapse of public services, and the mounting economic crisis. More than half of the population – a record 22.8 million people – face acute food insecurity, including 8.7 million people on the brink of famine, according to the global platform IPC. The latest nutrition data reveals that 4.7 million people may suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year, including 1.1 million children who are at risk of severe malnutrition.

WFP plans for 2022: To help up to 23 million people at a cost of $2.6 billion.

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*Ethiopia

After more than 14 months of war in northern Ethiopia, food distribution has fallen at all due to active conflict, access restrictions and lack of financial resources. An estimated 9.4 million people need food assistance – an increase of 40 percent compared to just the past four months.

WFP plans for 2022: To help up to 8.5 million people at a cost of $972 million.

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* South Sudan

In 2021, IPC analysis found that 7.2 million people experienced food insecurity crisis levels, with 2.4 million in emergency (IPC 4) and 108,000 in disaster categories (IPC 5). The situation is expected to deteriorate due to the effects of flooding, rising food prices, violence and significant restrictions on humanitarian access.

WFP plans for 2022: To help up to 5.6 million people at a cost of $1.1 billion.

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* Nigeria

About 18 million people are expected to face acute hunger during the lean season between June and September this year. Extreme hunger is attributed to climatic shocks, ongoing conflict, food supply issues, high food prices, and lower household purchasing power. Some populations in the conflict-affected Northeast regions are expected to slide into catastrophic food insecurity at the height of the dry season, if not sooner.

WFP plans for 2022: To help up to 1.8 million people at a cost of $405 million.

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* To whom

About 16 million people are acutely food insecure and need urgent assistance. Among them, 2.3 million children under the age of five suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and 400,000 of them are at risk of death if not treated. A funding crisis has forced the World Food Program to reduce food rations for 8 million people in Yemen amid a dangerous escalation of fighting and a continuing economic downturn.

WFP plans for 2022: To help up to 16 million people at a cost of $2 billion.

To be sure, the pandemic is not the only or the biggest driver of hunger worldwide.

“I think global challenges and explosive new trends are further complicating the issue,” Petrash said. “Denial, blind belief in technological solutions, and weak international environmental agreements are all contributing factors to a global crisis.”

She points to conflict, extreme poverty and the emergence of armed groups as common challenges facing countries whose populations suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

“At the same time, climate-related droughts and floods have intensified, weakening the ability of affected countries to respond before the next disaster,” she said.

Hunger is of course not a new challenge. In 2000, world leaders gathered at the United Nations to commit to achieving eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015, the first of which was the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

This goal was not achieved by the deadline. Instead, it was replaced by another commitment when a new set of Sustainable Development Goals was formulated in 2015. Ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030 is high on this list, being included in Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals. sustainable development.

Maymun Ali, 31, holds her two-year-old child at the Sahal Makalen Stabilization Center in Baidoa, Somalia, February 14, 2022. (AFP)

However, experts doubt that the goal of a zero-hunger world can be achieved in the next decade without immediate action to get to the root of the problem.

“This means ending the conflict, anticipating and adapting to new climate realities, and addressing the economic disparities that generate marginalization and deprivation,” Yahya said.

He pointed out that despite the current efforts, the report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World for 2021 predicts that the second goal of the sustainable development goals will be lost by a margin of nearly 660 million people, 30 million more than the scenario in which the epidemic did not occur.

In making this estimate, the report’s authors relied on four editions of the flagship report, which tracks progress toward ending hunger and achieving food security. It was jointly prepared by several international bodies including the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Petrash said the global hunger crisis would not end in parallel with the pandemic. She believes that the prevailing “neoliberal economic system” is the main cause of increased poverty and displacement of farmers and rural people everywhere.

“The neoliberal economic system is responsible for the increasing degradation of nature, including land, water, plants, animals, and natural resources, having placed all these vital resources under centralized systems of production, purchasing and distribution within the confines of a global market-oriented system,” she said.

King Salman Relief Center distributes 100 tons of food and shelter aid to 1,000 needy families in Maidan Wardak, Afghanistan. (SPA/photo file)

According to Petrash, the problem is exacerbated by wars, which are the main cause of population displacement and the suffering resulting from poverty, hunger and famine. A particularly egregious case is Yemen, where 3.6 million people have been displaced and some 17 million people are in dire need of food after years of conflict.

“People are struggling to survive, there have been deadly outbreaks of COVID-19, cholera and other infectious diseases, and the specter of famine looms on the horizon every day,” Petrash said of the situation in the country.

The United Nations has warned that Ethiopia, Madagascar and South Sudan are on the brink of famine, with dozens of other countries at risk.

Last but not least, the pandemic has exacerbated problems by forcing more than 1.6 billion children in nearly 200 countries out of school. As a result, the rate of child hunger and malnutrition has increased among the 370 million children who have lost access to nutritious meals served daily in schools in at least 150 countries.

“The three factors — conflict, climate change and the economic impact of COVID-19 — have created a perfect storm that requires a global response,” Yahya said.

“The cost of doing nothing will be measured in terms of lives lost, increased destabilization and human migration, and squandered human productivity and potential.”

It is clear that urgent assistance is essential to help protect the most vulnerable populations in the Middle East and other regions from hunger and malnutrition.

Fortunately, it is not too late for rich countries, philanthropists, and the wealthy to increase funding for programs trying to tackle the problem.