The number of people facing acute food insecurity could nearly double this year to 265 million due to the economic fallout of Covid-19, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
The impact of lost tourism revenues, falling remittances and travel and other restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic is expected to leave about 130 million more people acutely hungry this year, in addition to 135 million already in that category, the WFP said in a new report on Tuesday.
"Covid-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread," said Arif Husain, chief economist and director of research, assessment and monitoring at the WFP.
"We all need to come together to deal with this because if we don't the cost will be too high - the global cost will be too high: many lost lives and many, many more lost livelihoods," he told reporters at a virtual briefing in Geneva.
Husain said it was critical to act quickly to prevent people already living hand-to-mouth from selling their assets as it could take them years to become self-reliant again.
In some cases, such as when farmers sell their ploughs or oxen, it could have knock-on effects for food production for years to come, he added.
"These were the people we were concerned about - those who were OK before Covid and now they are not," he said, adding he was "really worried" about people living in countries with little or no government safety nets.
"Acute food and livelihood crisis" is category three of five UN phases, meaning a "critical lack of food access and above usual malnutrition".
With some crops rotting in fields and others subject to export bans, the coronavirus crisis could cause shortages in richer countries and hunger in poorer ones. #COVID19— World Food Programme (@WFP) April 16, 2020
We cannot let this health crisis turn into a food crisis.
Category 5 means mass starvation. UN officials did not give a geographical breakdown of the growing needs but said that Africa was likely to be hardest hit.
The WFP expects to need $10-$12bn to fund its assistance programmes this year compared to a record $8.3bn raised last year, Husain added. It plans to pre-position food stocks over the coming months in anticipation of growing needs.
Tuesday's fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises by the WFP and other partners found that food insecurity was already on the rise last year before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.
It found that 135 million people in 55 countries were in living in situations of acute food crises or outright humanitarian emergencies last year.
The increase by more than 20 million people takes it to a record level in the four years the report has been compiled.
Comparing the 50 countries in the reports this and last year, the number of people in food crisis rose by nearly 10 percent to 123 million people.
The increase was due to conflicts, economic shocks and weather-related events such as drought.
In Yemen and South Sudan, scarred by years of conflict, more than half of the population face acute food shortages.
Al Jazeera's Hiba Morgan, reporting from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, said in neighbouring South Sudan even prior to COVID-19 "there were over five million people who were facing starvation, many of them relying on food aid to survive - 1.7 million women and children acutely malnourished".
"So with coronavirus in the picture, access to delivery of aid services is severely impaired due to travel restrictions," she added.
"We're likely to see the numbers of those who are suffering from malnutrition and food insecurity rise in the coming months."