While the arguments for a reasonable degree of social distancing to combat COVID-19 in developing countries are strong, those for total lockdown are not. Lockdown poses new threats and could even transform the response to the pandemic into a famine especially in poor regions. Research and practical experience show how famines can result from the type of institutional and market failure involved in strict lockdown. This is what we have seen recently following the Ebola virus epidemic in 2014 in Sierra Leone, where starvation quickly emerged as a new threat.
Famine among poor and vulnerable populations can result from multiple causes, as Amartya Sen demonstrated in her book Poverty and Famines. Sen cited examples where there was no decrease in the total amount of food available. The problem came from its distribution among people and over time. In this area, markets and other institutions play a crucial role. Confinements can disrupt food production and distribution, along with a collapse in the incomes of the poor and rising food prices. We realize that food supply chains today present vulnerabilities, even in rich countries. And even if starvation is avoided, periods of poor nutrition can have lasting consequences, including greater vulnerability to other illnesses.
There are other reasons for concern that the pressure for lockdown in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 may backfire on countries like India. In the short term, imposing such measures produces large migratory flows that threaten to spread the virus even faster, especially among poor and vulnerable rural populations. The enforcement of lockdown measures by the police raises other concerns about the well-being of the poor, who will often be in need of leaving their homes to provide food for their families.
The number of people on the brink of starvation is likely to double in 2020 because of COVID-19, according to a projection unveiled a month ago by the World Food Program (WFP), whose head David Beasley warned the Security Council of UN against a “global humanitarian disaster.” According to the report of WFP, the number of people on the brink of starvation increased significantly in 2019, from 113 to 135 million people, due to conflicts, climate problems and economic setbacks. But for 2020, an explosion in this number is looming, which would increase from 135 to 265 million people, due to the economic impact caused by the pandemic, according to a projection of the WFP.
David Beasley painted a very dark panorama of what awaits the planet, urging the highest authority of the United Nations to decide quickly on actions to counter mass starvation. According to him, we are on the brink of a hunger pandemic and we are not only facing a global health pandemic, but also a global humanitarian disaster. Millions of civilians living in countries marked by conflict, including many women and children, are at risk of starvation, the spectre of famine being a very real and dangerous possibility. This COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time, as the situation is already deteriorating. Already every day around 21,000 people worldwide die from hunger-related causes. This is the usual situation in the world before the pandemic and this is likely to double soon.
Mark Lowcock, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator is calling on the world’s wealthiest countries to provide $90 billion in relief aid to the poorest. That amount would be sufficient to protect 700 million of the world’s most vulnerable people, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that leaders everywhere need to recognize that there’s a shared problem, which requires shared action. What is said of wealthy countries is also true of wealthy individuals. The fact is that no one will be safe until everybody is safe.