Agribusiness Markets Opinions

A Pandemic of Hunger

By Esther Ngumbi

URBANA, ILLINOIS – Around the world, food insecurity is spiking. Experts predict that the number of hungry people will double during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout Africa, governments struggle to provide for the neediest. In Burkina Faso, which at one point had the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 2.1 million people don’t have enough to eat. In Nairobi, people are fighting over their next meal. In Cape Town, police recently clashed with residents who didn’t receive parcels of rice, beans, oil, and other supplies.

But it is not just Africa. The tragedy is unfolding on screens across the globe. In Phoenix, cars begin lining up two hours before boxes with non-perishables were distributed. In Ohio, more than 4,000 people recently waited for hours to pick up packages of cereal, oatmeal, and pasta.

It is urgent that leaders find ways to ensure sufficient food supplies during the COVID-19 crisis. Because of lockdowns, sickness, and lost incomes, hunger will rise. And, because developed and developing countries are equally affected, we must find solutions together.

Data analytics is a key way to track food insecurity. What is needed is a real-time mapping tool like the data dashboard developed at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering to track confirmed coronavirus cases. And governments, NGOs, and others on the front lines of the fight against hunger should support the effort.

After all, timely information is vital to diagnosing and eliminating the problem. Real-time data inform local and national leaders, food banks, and NGOs how to prepare for and respond to emerging needs. For example, farmers who have excess perishables can report them on the map, and pick-ups and shipments can then be arranged to redistribute the food to communities and households in need.

Likewise, targeted policies are essential. Leaders must establish initiatives to ensure that people know where they can get their next meal. In the United States, the $2 trillion stimulus adopted in March will help, to the extent that it supports household incomes. And in April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $170 million initiative to curb hunger. Other US states are launching similar efforts.

In Africa, policymakers must make food security a top priority while stay-at-home orders are in effect. Citizens should not have to fight each other for their next meal. Governments need to pass stimulus packages that help all citizens, or seek aid that provides the necessary funds. While pay cuts like those taken by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, cabinet ministers, and business leaders are symbolically important, governments must provide cash or sustenance for their citizens. Many lived from hand to mouth before the crisis and now face a choice between starvation and sickness. Asking people to stay at home without providing resources is both immoral and unlikely to work.

Finding creative ways to distribute aid during the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial. For example, Vietnam now has rice-dispensing ATMs. More innovations like that are needed. Most important, however, world leaders must remove trade barriers, so that supply continues to flow across borders – a point that the CEOs of Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and other multinationals recently emphasized.

The reality is that the pandemic affects all of us, and we must all do our part to mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable. Some among the wealthiest have begun to combat the problem. Leonardo DiCaprio and Laurene Powell Jobs organized a GoFundMe page via America’s Food Fund. So far, it has raised more than $26 million. Several celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Oprah Winfrey, have donated to charities such as No Kid Hungry and Feeding America.

Business executives are contributing, too. Apollo Global Management CEO Leon Black and his wife, Debra, have given $20 million to a program that is providing supplies to health workers. Hedge fund billionaire David Tepper has donated $22 million to relief efforts. Celebrities in Africa are pitching in, too.

But let’s not fool ourselves: charity will never be enough. Stepping up efforts to ensure food security for all is essential to preventing the COVID-19 crisis from becoming a humanitarian calamity, and that objective is above all an imperative for policymakers.

Esther Ngumbi is Assistant Professor of Entomology and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.