Coronavirus Causing ‘Unprecedented’ Crisis, World Food Program Warns

The world faces an “unprecedented” food crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused both severe job losses and major disruptions in food supply chains, the U.N. World Food Programme’s Chief Economist warns.

“When you have these severe job losses, or you have big lockdowns, that means that those people become vulnerable,” Arif Husain tells TIME.

An estimated 265 million people could go hungry in 2020, nearly double the 2019 figures, according to WFP’s projection in April.

As millions around the world are losing their jobs or seeing their incomes cut, it’s increasingly difficult for them to afford food, Husain says. At the same time, lockdown measures and trade restrictions are making it harder to transport food from where it’s produced to where it’s needed, resulting in food going to waste in the field.

Refugees and people in conflict zones like Yemen, Syria, and Burkina Faso and those already living hand-to-mouth prior to the coronavirus outbreak are particularly vulnerable. They will require humanitarian aid or government assistance that might not have previously been needed, Husain says.

The pandemic is also affecting countries that rely on tourism and remittances. Economies where a large portion of the population relies on informal work—as well as those with large service or manufacturing sectors are likely to be hard-hit, as well.

The world does not currently have a shortage of food, but global food supplies are at risk of running low if farmers are not able to plant in time or receive fertilizer and other inputs in the coming months.

“This is why we need to treat the agricultural sector as an essential sector like health care workers,” Husain says. Farmers in countries like India and the Philippines are struggling to recover from the losses they suffered when strict lockdowns were imposed.

Several countries, including Russia, restricted exports of key food commodities at various points in the pandemic, but Husain cautions against trade barriers and urges countries to work together on trade policies when it comes to food.

“We need to make sure that countries don’t use artificial barriers like export bans or import subsidies because when they do that, particularly in this environment, when the purchasing power is so severely depressed, they create artificial [price] hikes. They create panic buying,” Husain says. “Starving your neighbor is never a good policy.”

Write to Aria Chen at aria.chen@time.com.

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