The Current

Facing COVID-19, crumbling economies and locusts, expert warns of another crisis: famine

The UN’s World Food Programme announced last week that, based on numbers from before the novel coronavirus became a global pandemic, 135 million people worldwide would go to bed on the brink of starvation in 2019. In the wake of COVID-19, that number could double, says David Beasley.

World Food Programme head warns more than 250 million people could be on brink of starvation

A man attempts to fend off a swarm of desert locusts at a ranch near the town of Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya, in February. A second wave of locust swarms are threatening crops across Kenya this month. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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With millions around the world facing droughts, floods, COVID-19 and plagues of locusts, the head of the World Food Programme is warning of another crisis: famine.

"Before COVID hit the scene, I had been telling leaders — particularly in Europe — that we were facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for the year 2020," said David Beasley, the organization's executive director.

"Now on top of this comes COVID, which is creating pandemic number two, so to speak, around the world," he added.

The UN agency announced last week that, based on numbers from before the novel coronavirus became a global pandemic, 135 million people worldwide went to bed on the brink of starvation in 2019.

Factoring in the effects that COVID-19 could have on the world's food supply chains, that number could double by the end of 2020, he warns. That would put the figure at more than 270 million people.

The coronavirus crisis has compounded already dire situations in many parts of the world, making access to food difficult. 

Across Africa, both floods and droughts have eroded fragile economies.

People are saying, "We're not worried about COVID, we're worried about eating tomorrow. We don't have food," said Beasley.

Now, farmers in Kenya are facing a second wave of locust swarms that have the potential to decimate crops in the area's peak growing season. 

'The worst is yet to come'

The voracious insects already damaged hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland across East Africa earlier this year.

"They're actually causing damage in terms of farms and also the natural vegetation that would have been suitable, of course, for livestock," said Abdinoor Ole Hussein, who works for the Kenyan government as director for special programs in Garissa County.

Desert locusts are seen on a tree at a ranch near the town of Nanyuki, Kenya in February. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

He says that with proper eradication techniques, including spraying fields with insecticide to kill locust nymphs — the young insects not yet able to fly — they can end the outbreak.

But COVID-19 measures, including physical distancing and a need to wear masks, are making it difficult to work in the Kenyan heat.

"Before we could travel in one vehicle — five, six, seven of us," Hussein said. "Now, because of the COVID restrictions, we are not able to [get] many of us in the same vehicle."

Hussein adds that resources and attention pledged for limiting the spread of locusts has been diverted to limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Beasley says global food supply chains must continue to run during the global COVID-19 pandemic in order to reduce the potential for famine.

World leaders must also invest greater time and money in aid efforts, he adds.

"We need for them to advance $1.9 billion [already pledged to the UN] so that we can move food into pre-positioning, such that when the supply chain does begin to break down, we've got the food already out in these very vulnerable areas," he said.

He's also calling for an additional $350 million over the next six months to ensure a continuous flow of medical supplies to developing nations. "Otherwise it will be catastrophic," he said.

"Leaders, they get it, but you [have] got to get the facts in front of them. And so far, the leaders around the world have responded extremely well," Beasley said.

"But the worst is yet to come."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.