U.N. warns of 'hunger pandemic' amid threats of coronavirus, economic downturn

An additional 130 million people could be on the brink of starvation by the end of 2020 as a result of the outbreak and its economic ramifications.
Image: Yemeni children play next to damaged tents due to torrential rain in a makeshift camp for the displaced in the northern Hajjah province
Yemeni children play by tents damaged by torrential rain at a makeshift camp for the displaced in the northern Hajjah province on Sunday.Essa Ahmed / AFP - Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Linda Givetash

While the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the United Nations food agency warned on Tuesday that a looming "hunger pandemic" will bring "the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II."

Famine in as many as three dozen countries is "a very real and dangerous possibility" due to ongoing wars and conflicts, economic crises and natural disasters, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley told the U.N. Security Council during a virtual briefing.

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, 821 million people experience chronic hunger while another 135 million people face "crisis levels of hunger or worse," Beasley said while quoting findings from the agency's new report on global food crises.

Beasley pointed to the economic crisis in Lebanon, wars in Syria and Yemen, and the swarms of desert locusts destroying crops for much of East Africa as pre-existing factors that were already setting 2020 up to be a dangerous year for hunger.

As a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent economic ramifications, the food agency found an additional 130 million people could be on the brink of starvation by the end of the year. The working poor would be hit the hardest as a result of the decline in tourism and exports, collapse of oil prices and any declines to foreign aid.

Download the NBC News app for latest updates on the coronavirus outbreak.

The resulting death toll could outpace that of the coronavirus with 300,000 people dying due to starvation every day over a three-month period, the agency reported.

Children are particularly at risk as lockdowns in response to the coronavirus are keeping them out of school where they typically could receive subsidized meals.

"I must warn you that if we don't prepare and act now — to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade — we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months," Beasley said.

Desert locusts swarm over a tree in Kenya on March 31.Sven Torfinn / AP file

The World Food Program is in need of an additional $1.9 billion in donations to stockpile food for countries at risk plus another $350 million to support the distribution of humanitarian aid, Beasley told the Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful body.

While there are no famines yet, "we do not have time on our side," Beasley said, urging world leaders to act quickly in providing aid.