Oxfam warns coronavirus may kill more people through hunger than disease itself

More people could die from hunger linked to coronavirus than from the respiratory disease itself, Oxfam has warned.

In a report, entitled The Hunger Virus, the charity cautions an estimated 122 million more people 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.

This equates to as many as 12,000 people dying every day, Oxfam warned, 2,000 extra fatalities per day than when the virus was at its peak in April 2020.

The report also said that eight of the world's biggest food and beverage companies, including Coca Cola, Unilever and Nestle payed out £14.3 billion ($18 billion) to shareholders as new global epicentres of hunger emerge.  

The pay-outs by the companies are 10 times more than what was requested in the UN’s Covid-19 appeal to stop people from going hungry, Oxfam said.

Hygiene kits are distributed in Yemen Credit: Oxfam/PA

Danny Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, said: “The knock-on impacts of Covid-19 are far more widespread than the virus itself, pushing millions of the world’s poorest people deeper into hunger and poverty.

"It is vital governments contain the spread of this deadly disease, but they must also prevent it killing as many – if not more – people from hunger.” 

The report reveals 10 of the world’s hunger “hotspots” where the food crisis is most severe and getting worse due to the pandemic - described as IPC level 3 - including Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan. 

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 as a result of the pandemic before the end of 2020.  

The global observed daily mortality rate for Covid-19 reached its highest recorded point so far in April 2020 at just over 10,000 deaths per day according to data 

Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, The West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, Venezuela and Haiti are also considered hunger “hotspots”.  

According to the report, women, and women-headed households, are more likely to go hungry despite the crucial role they play as food producers and workers.  

They make up a large proportion (40%) of already vulnerable groups, such as informal workers, that have been hit hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic and have also borne the brunt of a dramatic increase in unpaid care work as a result of school closures and family illness.  

Kadidia Diallo, a female milk producer in Burkina Faso, said: “Covid-19 is causing us a lot of harm.

"Giving my children something to eat in the morning has become difficult.

"We are totally dependent on the sale of milk, and with the closure of the market we can’t sell the milk anymore.

"If we don’t sell milk, we don't eat.” 

The report also highlights emerging epicentres in middle income countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa, where the pandemic tipped millions who had been managing over the edge. 

Farmers in India without vital migrant labour at the peak of the harvest season have been forced to leave their crops in the field to rot amid travel restrictions.  

Meanwhile traders have been unable to reach tribal Indian communities during the peak harvest season for forest products, leaving up to 100 million people deprived of their main source of income. 

In Yemen, remittances in the first four months of 2020 dropped by 80% or £200 million ($253 million) as a result of mass job losses across the Gulf.  

Last year Yemen received £3 billion ($3.8 billion) in remittances, equivalent to 13% of its gross domestic product (GDP). 

Food price spikes in Yemen, borders and supply route closures have also contributed to food shortages, especially wheat flour and sugar in a country that imports 90% of its food.  

The number of people on the brink of famine in Afghanistan has risen sharply from 2.5 million in September 2019 to 3.5 million in May 2020.  

The economic downturn in neighbouring Iran and border closures have also hit food supplies and caused a drop in remittances.  

Since the pandemic began, Oxfam says it has helped 4.5 million of the world’s most vulnerable people with food aid and clean water, working together with over 344 partners across 62 countries.

The international agency aims to reach a total of 14 million people by raising a further £90 million ($113m). 

“Governments can save lives now by funding the UN Covid-19 appeal and supporting the call for a global ceasefire to end conflict in order to tackle the pandemic," Mr Sriskandarajah said.

"The UK could make a real difference by championing debt cancellation at the G20 finance ministers meeting next week to pay for social protection measures such as cash grants to help people survive. 

“For many people Covid-19 comes as a crisis on top of a crisis.

"To break the cycle of hunger, governments must build fairer and more sustainable food systems that ensure small-scale producers and workers earn a living wage."