Long before the pandemic swept into her village in the rugged southeast of Afghanistan, Halima Bibi knew the gnawing fear of hunger. It was an omnipresent force, an unrelenting source of anxiety as she struggled to nourish her four children. Her husband earned about $5 a day, hauling produce by wheelbarrow from a local market to surrounding homes. Most days, he brought home a loaf of bread, potatoes and beans for an evening meal. But when the coronavirus arrived in March, taking the lives of her neighbours and shutting down the market, her husband’s earnings plunged to about $1 a day. Most evenings, he brought home only bread. Some nights, he returned with nothing.
“We hear our children screaming in hunger, but there is nothing that we can do,” said Bibi, speaking in Pashto by telephone from a hospital in the capital city of Kabul, where her 6-year-old daughter was being treated for severe malnutrition. “That is not just our situation, but the reality for most of the families where we live.” It is increasingly the reality for hundreds of millions of people around the planet. As the global economy absorbs the most punishing reversal of fortunes since the Great Depression, hunger is on the rise. Those confronting potentially life-threatening levels of so-called food insecurity in the developing world are expected to nearly double this year to 265 million, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
Worldwide, the number of children younger than 5 caught in a state of so-called wasting — their weight so far below normal that they face an elevated risk of death, along with long-term health and developmental problems — is likely to grow by nearly seven million this year, or 14 per cent, according to a recent paper published in The Lancet, a medical journal. The largest numbers of vulnerable communities are concentrated in South Asia and Africa, especially in countries that are already confronting trouble, from military conflict and extreme poverty to climate-related afflictions like drought, flooding and soil erosion. At least for now, the unfolding tragedy falls short of a famine, which is typically set off by a combination of war and environmental disaster. Food remains widely available in most of the world, though prices have climbed in many countries, as fear of the virus disrupts transportation links, and as currencies fall in value, increasing the costs of imported items.
Rather, with the world economy expected to contract nearly 5 per cent this year, households are cutting back sharply on spending. Among those who went into the pandemic in extreme poverty, hundreds of millions of people are suffering an intensifying crisis over how to secure their basic dietary needs. The pandemic has reinforced basic economic inequalities, none more defining than access to food.
In South Africa, more than a quarter-century has passed since the official ending of apartheid, yet the Black majority remains overwhelmingly confined to poor townships that are far removed from jobs and services in the cities. When the pandemic emerged in March, the government ordered the shutdown of informal food vendors and township shops, unleashing the military to detain merchants who violated orders. That forced residents to rely on supermarkets — suddenly farther away than ever, given the lockdown of already woeful bus service. Far from a danger confined to the world’s poorest countries, hunger is a growing scourge even in the wealthiest countries. Previously working people who have never felt compelled to seek help are now lining up at food banks in the United States, Spain and Britain. Even people of relative means are cutting their purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, while relying more on the cheap calories of fast food. In wealthier countries, the economic strains are cushioned by government programs like unemployment benefits, subsidized wage plans and cash grants for food. In the poorest countries, the coronavirus is intensifying a litany of already potent afflictions.
Counter-intuitive problem: Falling demand
Across the Arabian Sea, in the Indian capital of New Delhi, Champa Devi and her family have responded to a loss of income by downgrading their diet. She earns her living cleaning homes. Her husband lost his job as a driver early in the year. Then the pandemic emerged, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose a lockdown, and making it virtually impossible for her husband to find another job. Their favourite fruits, bananas and apples, have become luxuries they can no longer afford.
“We have to squeeze our wallets,” said Devi, 29, the mother of a 9-month-old daughter. “Now, we’re surviving on dal and roti. The shutdown eliminated paychecks for office workers in major cities. Migrant workers lost their construction jobs. The poorest of the poor were deprived of meager livings gained by gathering scraps of metal and plastic from streets. This translated into a monumental reduction of spending power in a nation of 1.3 billion.
And that produced what seems like a counter-intuitive problem in the midst of rising hunger: Falling demand for crops. In the northern Indian state of Haryana, Satbir Singh Jatain last month relinquished his bottle gourds to the elements, allowing them to rot on the vine rather than wasting the effort to harvest them. The price they would have fetched would not have covered the cost of labor or transportation. “There’s no point in even picking them and taking them to the market,” he said. Since the lockdown, Jatain, a third-generation farmer, has lost over Rs 700,000 ($10,000), he said. Initially, he could not get his tomatoes to market. What little he gained by selling the crop near his village covered less than a third of his costs. As the tomatoes began rotting, he became so enraged that he ran them over with a tractor.
“The lockdowns have destroyed farmers,” he said. “Now, we have no money to buy seeds or pay for fuel.” Across India, farm laborers complain they are not being paid, forcing their families to cut their spending on food. Jatain is on the hook for bank loans reaching nearly $18,000. He owes money lenders in his village. “I can never pay it back, and soon they will come for my land,” he said. “There is nothing left for us.”
Additional reporting by Abdi Latif Dahir and Karan Deep Singh. NYT©2020
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