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Hunger in the age of pandemic

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

Camilla Orjuela | 8 May 2020

The world is counting the dead. Every day, new figures are released of how many have died from the new coronavirus, globally, as well as in different countries across the world. The growing numbers bring with them worry, fear, and grief – but also a resolve to take far-reaching action to stop the spread of the virus.

With the overwhelming focus on COVID-19 victims, it is easy to forget that people – of course – continue to die of other causes too, of fatalities not marked in the widely publicized death-counts and graphs. As we look elsewhere, other diseases, accidents, domestic violence, and armed conflicts continue to claim their victims.

That some deaths generate official acknowledgment and political action while others are hardly noted beyond the sphere of the closest family is nothing new. The measures taken by society to prevent and memorialize deaths are rarely proportionate to how many are affected by a particular threat or tragedy. Just consider the attention given to terrorism compared to diarrheal diseases, which in 2017 killed 56 times as many people. While governments allocate vast amounts of money to guard themselves against the menace of war, life-threatening phenomena such as hunger, poverty, and the lack of clean water and adequate health care receive far less interest and resources than they deserve.

The ongoing pandemic has both turned this on its head – and not. Suddenly, world leaders are fully recognizing a disease as a global danger and the importance of healthcare systems and workers to mitigate its effects. At the same time, though, the efforts against this serious threat risk eclipsing the work against many other lethal problems – and creating new ones.

“It’s better to get coronavirus while looking for money than to sit at home and die from hunger,” a vendor at a market in Zimbabwe recently lamented. For her, the lockdown intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could lead to acute food insecurity. Similar statements come from all over the world. “I know the risk of coronavirus, but I cannot see my children hungry,” a day laborer in India commented; while a homeless teenager in Mozambique remarked that “rich people can stay at home… because they have a store well-stocked with food. For a survivor on the street, your store is your stomach.”

For the poor, for day laborers and migrant workers, the homeless and the vulnerable, the measures against the pandemic may turn out to be more dangerous than the pandemic itself.

Even before COVID-19 claimed the world’s attention, 135 million people faced severe and acute food insecurity globally. As recently as January 2020, the UN warned that 45 million people in southern Africa were gravely food insecure due to climate change-induced drought and flooding. While hunger is most common in poor countries in Africa and Asia – as many as one-fifth of the population in Africa is undernourished, for instance – the problem of food insecurity is prevalent also in North America and Europe, where 8% of the population lacked regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food in 2018.

In recent decades, poverty reduction measures, economic growth, increased food production, improved healthcare, and more efficient humanitarian responses have increased food security globally and almost made large-scale famine a thing of the past. However, this positive trend was broken a few years ago, and in 2020, the deadly combination of climate change, ongoing armed conflicts, and COVID-19-induced strains has created a new global hunger crisis. Half a billion people could slide into poverty owing to the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn making global famines ‘of biblical proportions’ an imminent threat according to the United Nations.

Hunger and disease have always been closely intertwined. The starving body is easy prey for infections and other maladies. During famines, more people, in fact, die from diseases that their emaciated bodies cannot fend off than from the lack of food itself. During the current pandemic, those already weakened by hunger are more likely to become severely ill when infected. Moreover, as demonstrated in the quotations above, the hungry are often unable to stay at home or maintain the physical distancing measures mandated by governments. The extremely precarious situation – both when it comes to infection and hunger – for people confined to refugee camps or prisons has already been noted. Inequalities have also become glaringly apparent: globally, poor countries and regions are struggle to secure hospital beds, medical staff, and equipment. Within countries, the socially and economically disadvantaged are at greater risk of infection, serious illness, and death. Meanwhile lockdowns put a strain on food production and distribution, global recession is likely to make it even more challenging to find resources to fight both emergencies of starvation and chronic hunger.

As we at the School of Global Studies have been debating the multiple impacts of COVID-19, we are trying to capture some of its effects on hunger in a series of blog posts. In Africa, ongoing armed conflicts and conflict-induced displacement have been a key factor behind food insecurity. Fisseha Fantahun Terefa discusses how the pandemic and the harsh measures to deal with it risk further exacerbating the problem of hunger. Yemen became a symbol of modern-day famines when photos of starving children flooded media in late 2018. Now, COVID-19 further complicates the still ongoing humanitarian disaster. In his blogpost, Johan Leijon updates us on the situation. The way the pandemic plays into already existing inequalities in India and adds to a long history of multiple relations between hunger and society is reflected on by Swati Parashar.

The contributing authors to the posts on COVID-19 and hunger work together on a research endeavor titled “Famines as mass-atrocities: reconsidering violence, memory, and justice in relation to hunger.” When we initiated the project, we were concerned about how hunger – and particularly mass-starvation – often falls outside of the attention paid to more direct and spectacular forms of violence. We had noted how victims of even the most devastating famines are rarely officially commemorated, and that those responsible are not held to account – even though famine deaths are not the unfortunate effect of poor weather, but the result of human action or inaction. Over the coming years, we will study when and how victims of starvation are memorialized – or forgotten – and look at attempts at advancing an understanding of famines as mass-violence and at holding perpetrators accountable.

Today the “silent emergency” of hunger may be much less silent, as stories of starvation in the wake of the pandemic become headlines around the world. However, questions about which victims are “grievable” and whether and when responsible actors are identified and brought to justice will continue to demand attention.


Camilla Orjuela is a professor of peace and development research at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, and heads the project “Famines as mass-atrocities: Reconsidering violence, memory, and justice in relation to hunger.”


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