COVID-19: the hunger virus

The pandemic caused economic and health shock that led to income losses, rising food prices, disruption of supply chains


In 2019, 47 million children suffered from malnutrition, weight loss and extreme thinness. Pandemic should hamper UN goal to eradicate hunger in the world by 2030

Almost 7 million additional children worldwide can suffer from the effects of malnutrition due to the economic and social crisis caused by the pandemic, according to an estimate published by the United Nations (UN) in late July. In 2019, 47 million children suffered from malnutrition, weight loss and extreme thinness, according to the United Nations Childrens Fund (Unicef). The Fund also warned that with the pandemic, that number could reach almost 54 million children in the first 12 months of the crisis, which could translate into an additional 10 thousand child deaths per month, mainly in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Unicef based the information on an analysis published by the medical journal The Lancet, in which researchers warn of the consequences of child malnutrition linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-July, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also warned that one in nine people in the world suffered chronic malnutrition in 2019, a proportion that is expected to worsen with this years recession caused by COVID.

Despite efforts to reduce global poverty in the world, some 1.3 billion people in 107 developing countries are still multidimensionally poor, without access to adequate nutrition, health, education and a decent standard of living. For Dr. Francisco Funcia, economist and master in Political Economy at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), the crisis caused by COVID should hinder the progress achieved so far. “The pandemic has caused a sharp drop in economic activity and unemployment, which aggravates the situation especially in countries that, simultaneously, present a great inequality of income distribution and health systems that do not guarantee universal access for the population”, he highlights. By FAO estimates, by 2030, if this trend continues, the number of hungry people is expected to exceed 840 million.

According to the “2020 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index” (MPI), of the 1.3 billion people who still live in multidimensional poverty, more than 80% are deprived of at least five of the 10 indicators used to measure health, education and quality of life in the global MPI. Still according to the data pointed out in the document, the burden of multidimensional poverty falls disproportionately on children, who represent half of all; two thirds of these children live in middle-income countries; 85% wake up in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and 85% of them live in rural areas.

In the opinion of the economist Francisco Funcia, who is also a professor and assistant coordinator of the Observatory of Public Policies, Entrepreneurship and Situation at the Municipal University of São Caetano do Sul, technical consultant of the National Health Council (CNS) and former director of the Brazilian Association of Health Economics (ABRES), in order to change this reality, it is essential that all countries have universal public health systems with sufficient resources for this purpose. “Fiscal austerity policies need to be replaced by others that prioritize employment and income generation as well as primary health care as the organizer of the entire health care network of the population, even if this process is initially financed through the increase in public debt, until a tax reform is promoted that focuses more on income, estates and wealth”, he explains.

For him, it is necessary to have a global pact around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG / Agenda2030/ / UN) that guarantee citizenship rights, and especially that health is not considered a commodity and source of profit. “In the Brazilian case, defending the Unified Health System (SUS) and fighting against its underfunding, which involves the repeal of Constitutional Amendment 95/2016, which froze the minimum federal application in health in the 2017 floor value and defined as a ceiling for all primary expenditures of the federal government, the value of 2016, which for the health system, meant a loss of R$ 22.5 billion from 2018”, he points out.

Pandemic launches world economy in worst recession

According to World Bank forecasts, the global economy is expected to contract by 5.2% in 2020, this represents the deepest recession since the Second World War, with the largest proportion of economies since 1870 experiencing decline in per capita GDP, according to “Global Economic Prospects” publication. Check out the regional perspectives

East Asia and the Pacific: Projections for growth in the region indicate a drop to 0.5% in 2020, the lowest rate since 1967, which reflects the disturbances caused by the pandemic.

Europe and Central Asia: There is a 4.7% contraction forecast for the regions economy, with recessions present in almost all countries.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Shocks from the pandemic will lead to a 7.2% drop in regional economic activity in 2020.

Middle East and North Africa: Activity in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to contract by 4.2% as a result of the pandemic and oil market developments.

South Asia: Economic activity in the region is projected to contract 2.7% in 2020, given that pandemic mitigation measures hinder consumption and service activity, and uncertainty about the course of the pandemic discourages investment private.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Economic activity in the region is on track to contract by 2.8% in 2020, the deepest on record.

The analytical sections of the “Global Economic Prospects” address the key aspects of the historic economic shock, such as:

– How deep will the COVID-19 recession be? The investigation of 183 economies in the 1870-2021 period offers a historical insight into global recessions.

– Scenarios of possible results in terms of growth: Short-term projections are subject to an unusual level of uncertainty; alternative scenarios are considered.

– How does informality aggravate the impact of the pandemic? The impacts over health and the economy of the pandemic are likely to worsen in countries where informality is widespread.

– Prospects for low-income countries: The pandemic is taking a heavy human and economic toll on the poorest countries.

– Regional macroeconomic implications: All regions face their own vulnerabilities to the pandemic and the associated slowdown.

– Impact on global value chains: Disruptions in global value chains can amplify the pandemics shocks on trade, production and financial markets.

– Long-lasting scars of the pandemic: Deep recessions are likely to cause long-term damage to investment, erode human capital through unemployment and trigger a setback in local trade and supply chains.

– The implications of cheap oil: Low oil prices, resulting from an unprecedented drop in demand, are unlikely to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, but may provide some support during the recovery.

Paradox between containing the pandemic and the economy

According to Professor Funcia, this “false dilemma” – because there is no economic activity without healthy workers and consumers living in a healthy environment – placed by the Brazils President with the support of business sectors early in the process of social isolation contributed negatively both for coping with COVID-19, and for economic activity. Still according to the professor, what we are seeing are the consequences of this false dilemma: the economy is in a deep recession, and it will remain so for some time because there is no point in easing the social distancing (whose adhesion was not majority) if a part of the population perceives that the risk of contagion is still high (the case and death curves are situated at very high levels). However, many were unable to comply with this measure for a long time.

“In fact, the populations adherence was never majority because the great socioeconomic inequality that existed in Brazil demanded social protection measures from the federal government much deeper than the emergency aid of R$ 600 per month [~114 USD] (with public expenses estimated at only R$ 250 billion [~48 million USD] in those 5 months, i.e., less than 4% of Brazils GDP). Federal economic protection measures for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, which are major job generators, would also be necessary”, notes Dr. Funcia.

In his view, if there had been since the early days of COVID-19 in Brazil an integrated planning and a national coordination process with the participation of the federal government to stimulate a rate of adherence to social isolation greater than that was seen in the first 60 days, flexibilization could have started in June and with safety, because the cases and deaths would be at much lower levels than the current figures, which would have even demanded less public resources for the expenses with health care and with economic and social protection and, mainly, avoided deaths. “In addition, measures could have been taken (in these almost 150 days of knowledge of the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic) in Brazil to finance the conversion of part of our industrial park to the production of materials, medications and other products to meet the extraordinary demand from health units (in view of the scarcity observed in the market and/or the high prices practiced by the private sector)”, details the Master in Political Economy.

The technical adviser to the CNS Council is also categorical in stating that defending the right to health, prioritizing the lives of the population, would also be a way of protecting the economy. For that, it would be necessary only for the federal government to face COVID-19 with measures planned and articulated nation-wide to prevent the explosion of cases of contagion and deaths, emphasizes Dr. Funcia.

Concern with the future

According to data released by the FAO, 10 million more people than in 2018 entered the list of hunger, and, if compared to 2014, this contingent of hungry people has increased by over 60 million individuals across the planet. It is likely that the global recession caused by the COVID pandemic will lead to hunger from 83 to 132 million more people in the coming years, and depending on the size of the economic downturn and the delay to recover, this number may increase or decrease. The UN notes that hunger has increased worldwide since 2014, albeit slowly, as in Asia, where 381 million are hungry; from Africa, with 250 million hungry people and from Latin America and the Caribbean with 48 million people. And what will be the future of the tropical world after the pandemic?

Epidemiologist physician César Victora, professor at the Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel), the first Brazilian to receive the Gairdner Award, Canadas most important scientific award, and president of the International Epidemiological Association from 2011 to 2014, claims that the tropical world after the pandemic it will certainly need many efforts to control tropical diseases that it will be seriously affected, both by the number of sick people (and the possibility of comorbidity) and by the disruption of health services. We will have to increase investments to reach the entire population, particularly the most vulnerable groups, such as the poorest and ethnic minorities, with interventions that can reduce morbidity and mortality from all diseases, including those characterized as tropical, he says.

The data is worrying, since the trend reverses decades of decrease in the number of hungry people, and in addition, the increase in hunger in the world serves as a warning as, with the worsening indicators, countries will hardly meet the goal to eradicate hunger by 2030. The future prospects look bleak and the crisis caused by COVID will leave lasting scars and impose major global challenges. The pandemic highlights the urgent need for economic and health policy actions, including global cooperation, to mitigate its consequences, protect vulnerable populations and strengthen countries capacity to prevent and deal with similar events in the future. In addition to the coronavirus crisis, it is worth remembering that the world was already facing other events that contribute to bad data and worsen the hunger scenario on the planet, among them is the Yemen war, one of the most serious humanitarian crises of this century.