One of the hard lessons of the COVID-19 crisis has been that nations tend to learn pandemic preparedness through hard lessons.
East Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore successfully applied their experience combating H1N1 in 2009 to the current challenge. Many African nations were able to implement effective measures they learned in the context of the Ebola outbreak of 2013 to 2016. Hopefully Americans have gained a store of social knowledge about hygiene and social distancing that will allow economic reopening with greater safety and will help fight a second wave of COVID-19.
But the world now faces a trial for which there is no recent precedent. Waiting for the accumulation of hard experience in this case would result in a vast human tragedy. In parts of the developing world, the COVID-19 pandemic is developing in tandem with famine. And the combination would be a much more ambitious and efficient killer than COVID-19 alone.
Speaking before the U.N. Security Council, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley recently described “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.” He made his case through grim mathematics. There are 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. The World Food Program estimates that COVID-19 will push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation. That would leave 265 million people on famine’s edge. Yet on any given day, the World Food Program helps feed about 100 million people. The gap between need and capacity is an unfolding disaster.
“If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need,” said Beasley, “our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period.”
Consider that potential death count—hundreds of thousands of people each day. “In a worst-case scenario,” Beasley continued, “we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation.... We could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”
The adjective “biblical” applies, assuming you are consulting the more implacable portions of Exodus. Locusts do figure in. Ten nations in Africa and the Middle East are suffering the worst swarms of desert locusts in decades, endangering the food security of 25 million people. One recent swarm in Kenya was reportedly the size of Luxembourg.
This adds to a tangle of complicating factors cited by Beasley. Lockdowns and resulting economic recessions in the developing world have pushed many of the working poor toward hunger. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on school meals. The level of remittances has fallen along with economic activity. Tourism—which accounts for a large portion of national income in many African countries—has collapsed. Oil-rich countries such as South Sudan and Nigeria have seen oil prices dramatically decline. And most destructively, more than 45 million people worldwide have been driven from their homes by violent conflict, leaving them particularly vulnerable to hunger and disease.
Many African countries seemed successful in their initial efforts to contain COVID-19 (though the general lack of testing may conceal a larger problem). But there are now hot spots in Somalia, Tanzania and Nigeria. The last is particularly disturbing. A roaring pandemic in Nigeria would soon engulf all of West Africa. And because many African health systems are fragile to begin with, even a moderate strain could break them. This would put other health gains—on diseases such as malaria, polio and HIV—at risk.
What would an adequate response look like? Increasing resources for the World Food Program should be on the agenda. The program’s planes and trucks provide the logistical backbone for global humanitarian relief. The program is also the rare U.N. program that does precisely what it was designed to do.
It will be important for the United States and other nations to push for humanitarian access in conflict zones. It takes strong, consistent, outside effort to ensure that refugees and displaced people are not beyond the reach of help.
Given Trump administration concerns, bulking up the World Health Organization is not on the table. But as the American COVID-19 crisis moves to the downside of its curve, President Trump will have an extraordinary opportunity to reduce suffering and silence his critics. Were he to put together a large bilateral, pandemic/famine response on the model of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or Pepfar, he might find some things he generally lacks: bipartisan support, global approval and historical credit.