Hunger linked to COVID-19 could kill more people than the virus itself: Oxfam

Thursday, July 9, 2020
Francoise* (47), collects her first bag of dried food in Bunia, DRC. Photo by John Wessels / Oxfam

Horn, East and Central Africa’s debt payments compound the hunger crisis for millions

In a new briefing published today, Oxfam warns that hunger linked to COVID-19 could kill as many as 12,000 people a day by the end of the year, potentially claiming more lives each day than the disease itself.

‘The Hunger Virus,’ reveals how 121 million more people (globally) could be pushed to the brink of starvation this year as a result of the social and economic fallout from the pandemic including through mass unemployment, disruption to food production and supplies, and declining aid.

In the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) region, over 47 million people were already food insecure due to the triple crises of floods, locust infestation and now COVID-19.

Lydia Zigomo, Oxfam’s HECA Regional Director said: “DRC, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan were all already facing humanitarian emergencies and urgently needed funding when the pandemic hit. Continuing debt, at a time when many HECA governments are already economically devastated and responding to the pandemic, mean efforts to curb hunger will be extremely challenged. Donor governments should fully fund the UN’s COVID-19 humanitarian appeal to mitigate the additional food security impacts of COVID-19.The G20 Finance Ministers, meeting later in July 2020 must take bold and urgent action to ensure that private creditors and multilateral lenders cancel all debt payments in the region for 2020 and 2021."

The briefing reveals the most severe hunger hotspots in the HECA region. For example:

  • In DRC, where 15.6 million people are food insecure, the price of locally produced goods, such as maize, cassava and sorghum, had risen nearly 50% by April 2020, compared to the same month the previous year.
  • In Ethiopia, where 8 million people are food insecure, an estimated 356,000 metric tons of cereal crops and 1.3 million hectares of pastureland have been lost to locusts to date. Movement restrictions slowed measures to control the swarms and impacted the food supply chain.
  • In Sudan, where 5.9 million people were already food insecure in 2019, COVID-19 has contributed to hunger. In the current period of June to September 2020, an estimated 9.6 million people are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity and need urgent action.
  • In South Sudan, where 7 million people are already food insecure, seven years of protracted conflict and violent extremism has forced millions from their homes and had a devastating impact on domestic food production in a country where 80% of people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. More recently, swarms of desert locusts have been devouring crops and pasture, with fears that the plague − already in the hundreds of billions − will grow further.

With the humanitarian response underfunded, declining tax revenues, and falling prices of commodities such as oil, currently available funds are not sufficient to address the deepening hunger crisis. Oxfam is calling for the cancellation of all external debt payments due to be made in 2020 and 2021 as the fastest way to free up resources needed to save millions from hunger and ensure livelihoods are rebuilt.

Mama Fatuma Muhumed Kanyare, a farmer from Tana River in Kenya, told Oxfam: “When the locusts attacked my farm, they took everything green. Then floods came too and washed away irrigation pumps and destroyed farm produce. My firstborn who was supporting us lost his job due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. I can no longer enjoy three meals because of COVID-19, floods, and locusts. Sometimes we forgo breakfast or lunch because of the hardship.”

“Governments must also ensure that additional loans and any relief due to debt suspension or cancellation, is channelled towards programs that help those most impacted. They should ensure accountability and transparency in the use of funds, and that expanded social protection and increased funding for agriculture are among the priorities,” said Corinne N’Daw, Oxfam’s Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In April, the G20 approved a one-year debt suspension to some countries in the region. While this provides some relief for governments and frees up funds to support recovery, this suspension is inadequate. It should be extended to all forms of multilateral and privately held debt. Rather than suspending payments, lenders should cancel payments for 2020 and 2021.

Notes to editors: 

The Hunger Virus: How the coronavirus is fuelling hunger in a hungry world is available on request.

Stories, pictures, and video highlighting the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on hunger across the globe are available on request.

The WFP estimates that the number of people in crisis level hunger − defined as IPC level 3 or above – will increase by approximately 121 million this year because of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. The estimated daily mortality rate for IPC level 3 and above is 0.5−1 per 10,000 people, equating to 6,050−12,100 deaths per day due to hunger because of the pandemic before the end of 2020. The global observed daily mortality rate for COVID-19 reached its highest recorded point in April 2020 at just over 10,000 deaths per day and has ranged from approximately 5,000 to 7,000 deaths per day in the months since then according to data from John Hopkins University. While there can be no certainty about future projections, if there is no significant departure from these observed trends during the rest of the year, and if the WFP estimates for increasing numbers of people experiencing crisis level hunger hold, then it is likely that daily deaths from hunger as a result of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic will be higher than those from the disease before the end of 2020. It is important to note that there is some overlap between these numbers given that some deaths due to COVID-19 could be linked to malnutrition.

  1. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) estimates that 1.5 million people Uganda will likely be in Crisis or worse (IPC Phase 3+) between April and July 2020 in the absence of food assistance.
  2. In Uganda, where COVID-19 control measures disrupted the planting season and pushed farmers to the brink, debt repayment takes up to 8.98% of the national budget, compared to the 2.91% allocated to agricultural development. Social distancing rules and the closure of community markets have left farmers unable to buy seeds, fertilizes, or slowed planting. Areo Joyce, a smallholder farmer told Oxfam: "Working as a full group is not allowed. 30 people cannot work at the same time in the same garden. This has delayed planting."
  3. In the Malabo Declaration, African governments committed to spend at least 10% of their national budgets to accelerate agricultural growth.
  4. In the current financial year, the government of Kenya spends seventeen times more on debt repayment than on its national budget for agriculture, and two hundred and ten times more than what it spends on its Hunger Safety Net Programme. Cancelling these debt payments would leave Kenya’s government with enough funds to provide a year’s worth of Hunger Safety Net cash transfers to an additional twenty-eight million households.
  5. In Kenya’s national budget for 2020/2021 financial year, the government has allocated 52.8 Billion for Agriculture while 904.704 Billion for debt servicing. From Kenya’s budget policy statement for 2020/21, the government has allocated Ksh. 4.3b for the Kenya Hunger Safety Net Programme and Ksh. 904.704b towards debt repayment.
  6. In Uganda out of a total budget of Ush 4 trillion, the government has allocated Ush 1.324 trillion to agriculture and 4 trillion to interest payments.
  7. With 1.74 million people already food insecure in Burundi, 3.5 million in Kenya, 2.4 million in Rwanda, 1.3 million in Somalia and 1 million in Tanzania, COVID-19 has combined with protracted conflict, growing inequality, and an escalating climate crisis to shake an already broken region food system to its foundations. This could leave millions more on the brink of starvation.
Contact information: 

Spokespersons are available. To arrange for interviews contact:

Martin Namasaka
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