Thousands may die daily from hunger due to Covid-19 - and SA is a new hotspot

tractor working at the vineyard
tractor working at the vineyard
  • A new Oxfam report has warned that South Africa is joining the list of global hunger epicentres. 
  • The organisation estimates that by the end of the year, 12 000 people across the globe could die each day from hunger linked to Covid-19.
  • The report painted a grim picture of SA's rapidly rising food insecurity, flagging a spike in unemployment and loss of income, and slamming retailers that indulged in price gouging.

Covid-19 is deepening the disaster in the world's hunger hotspots and creating new epicentres of hunger worldwide, with South Africa joining a list of new crisis areas, according to a new briefing by Oxfam on Thursday.

The organisation estimates that by the end of the year, 12 000 people across the globe could die each day from hunger linked to Covid-19.

In addition to the existing top hunger hotspots - namely Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Venezuela, the West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Haiti - which together account for 65% of people facing crisis level hunger globally - new hunger hotspots, including SA, are also emerging, the non-profit said.

"Middle-income countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil are experiencing rapidly rising levels of hunger as millions of people that were just about managing have been tipped over the edge by the pandemic," Oxfam said in a document dated 9 July 2020.

Oxfam is not alone in its concern. Also on Thursday, the Foundation for Human Rights said a survey it conducted among 127 community-based advice offices during Level 4 and 5 of South Africa's lockdown showed the "most serious implication" felt by respondents was hunger.

According to the report, existing problems limiting access to food have become more pronounced during the pandemic, with prices rising and food proving to be "the most difficult basic good" to access during the lockdown. Children, it noted, were most affected.  

The final straw

It is, however, the Oxfam report that describes in devastating detail the hunger crisis facing SA and other countries.

Oxfam is a confederation of 20 independent charitable organisations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty. Its latest brief explores how the Covid-19 pandemic is fuelling hunger, describing it as the "final straw for millions of people already struggling with the impacts of conflict, climate change, inequality and a broken food system".

Citing a report by the World Food Programme released at the end of June, the Oxfam briefing states:

"The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of people experiencing crisis level hunger will rise to 270 million before the end of the year as a result of the pandemic, an 82% increase since 2019."

It adds: 

"This means between 6 000 and 12 000 people per day could die from hunger linked to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic before the end of the year, perhaps more than will die each day from the disease by that point."

South Africa: Inequality, unemployment, hunger

The report painted a grim picture of SA's rapidly rising food insecurity, flagging a spike in unemployment and loss of income, and slamming retailers that indulged in price gouging.

"Weekly polling conducted since the start of lockdown has revealed that unemployment and loss of income is having a direct impact on food security," it said.

"One-in-three adults surveyed said they were going to bed hungry, and a fifth had lost weight during the lockdown because of a lack of food."

Saying the problem was particularly bad in urban areas, the report noted that even before the pandemic struck, 13.7 million people living in SA did not have access to enough food due to high levels of unemployment, lack of access to assets such as land or fishing permits, and rising prices.

"Inequality and discrimination mean that some groups such as women - who earn 27% less, on average, than their male counterparts - are more likely to experience hunger," Oxfam added.

"Meanwhile, the prices of food and other essentials have spiked because of stockpiling and price gouging by supermarkets and other suppliers. The closure of street food vendors, which support an estimated 500 000 livelihoods and provide food for 70% of township households, [had] a dramatic impact on both the farmers that supply them and on what people can buy and eat - with many people consuming fewer fresh fruits and vegetables."

The report also expressed concern over millions of workers who had no access to income or sick leave during the outbreak, as well as undocumented migrants who would not be eligible for government support.

It described local government-run food distribution programmes as "beset with problems", including delivery delays.

Contributing factors

Among the contributing factors to rising hunger, Oxfam cites mass unemployment, increased pressure on food producers, dwindling humanitarian aid, a "broken food system", climate change, conflict and inequality. 

"The dramatic slowdown in the global economy, coupled with severe restrictions on movement, has resulted in mass job losses over the last few months. With no income or social support, millions of people cannot afford enough to eat. The International Labour Organization estimates that the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs have been lost because of the pandemic, with women and young people especially hard hit," Oxfam states.

"Up to half a billion people could be pushed into poverty as a result."

According to the International Labour Organisation, 61% of people globally work in the informal economy, which has been under particularly heavy pressure as a result of the pandemic.

Migrant workers, too, have been grappling with additional hardship due to travel restrictions and difficulties linked to sending money home. "Global remittances totalled $554bn in 2019 and are a lifeline for millions of families that are living in poverty," notes Oxfam.

However, the World Bank has estimated that the pandemic will result in a 20% decline in remittances to low- and middle-income countries, amounting to a loss of more than $100 billion.

Small-scale food producers have been hamstrung by travel restrictions and lockdowns, dealing a blow to food production. Additionally, notes Oxfam, the Food and Agriculture Organisation Food Price Index - which tracks the average price supermarkets and other retailers pay for a basket of basic goods - has fallen steadily in 2020, while consumer prices are going up due to disruption in supply chains, inflation, panic buying and price gouging.

This, combined with difficulty in securing humanitarian aid, has had a devastating impact on food security.

"To date, 24% of the Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) - which requires $7.3 billion - has been funded. Within this, just 9% of the funding required to tackle rising food insecurity has been pledged," said Oxfam.

"These cuts are already affecting the ability of agencies such as Oxfam to respond at a time when the pandemic has heightened humanitarian need."

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