Fountain and Gelsdorf: COVID, hunger are intertwined

The U.N. World Food Program's logo at the agency's headquarters in New York. AP Photo/Robert Bumstead
The U.N. World Food Program's logo at the agency's headquarters in New York. AP Photo/Robert Bumstead

This year, there has been a laser focus on COVID-19. So when earlier this month the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nation’s World Food Programme, people asked (as our students have been doing): What is the connection between food security and a global pandemic?

Throughout time, the availability and accessibility of food have played a central role in defining the human condition. Clearly, civilizations have prospered or fallen in direct correlation to how well those fundamental needs have been met.

Globally, and just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, 690 million people suffered from chronic hunger and approximately 135 million were in a state of crisis due to acute hunger that threatened their livelihoods and their very lives.

What is critical to understand is that food insecurity is not just driven by a drought. We have long known that where there is conflict, there is likely to be hunger. By some estimates, more people died from hunger during World War II than by violence.

But there is also an increasing realization that hunger itself drives instability. We see this in modern day crises like Syria and the Sahel, where environmental degradation produced human migration and conflict among groups. Food insecurity is therefore a multidimensional challenge linked to conflict, climate change, persistent poverty, and, yes, epidemics (not to mention pandemics).

The WFP is forecasting that due to COVID-19, the number of hungry people in the countries where it operates could increase up to 270 million before the year’s end — an 82% increase from before the pandemic took hold. Up to 6,000 children now could die every day from preventable causes as a direct result of pandemic-related disruptions.