But it is in developing countries, where the vast majority of the world’s population lives, that the most damaging long-term repercussions could be felt, economists and U.N. officials say.
International agencies have released stark figures in recent weeks highlighting the risk that poverty and hunger could end up killing even more people worldwide than the 40 million victims that researchers had projected would die from the virus if no control measures were taken.
Some 1.6 billion of the world’s 2 billion informal workers, or nearly half the global workforce, have already lost their jobs, according to the International Labor Organization. They include gig workers in Western economies, but the vast majority are in developing countries, where most employment is informal and families live hand-to-mouth, relying on a daily wage if they are to eat at the end of the day.
The loss of income for people already living perilously close to the margins of survival will propel up to 50 million people into abject poverty this year, reversing three decades of gains in the war against deprivation, according to World Bank estimates. A study by the United Nations said 580 million could become impoverished, meaning they lack the basic means to survive.
And as incomes are lost, a “hunger pandemic” could eclipse the coronavirus, the World Food Program has warned; 130 million people are expected to join the ranks of the 135 million who were expected to suffer from acute hunger this year, the agency says, bringing to 265 million the number of those at risk of starvation.
The problem isn’t a shortage of food, of which there is plenty, food experts say. The initial lockdowns triggered some short-term supply problems, and localized shortages of specific products have pushed some prices higher, putting vital foodstuffs such as meat and fruit beyond the reach of people without work.
The bigger problem is that people aren’t earning enough money to eat, or to eat properly.
“This is a very dramatic situation for people who normally don’t need assistance. Very, very quickly they’re becoming vulnerable,” said Arif Husain, the World Food Program’s chief economist. “We’re seeing these problems, of not having enough to make ends meet, in developed countries. It’s many times more troubling in the poor countries, where to begin with people spend 60 to 70 percent of their income on food.”
In India, half of the workforce lost jobs overnight when the country imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.
In Africa, 65 percent of the population lives in crowded informal settlements where social distancing is difficult, said Stephen Karingi, director of regional trade and integration at the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. These are people who typically “wake up in the morning, go out to look for money for their food and then they come back and eat their meal,” he said at a World Health Organization news briefing last week.
In a recent survey in Africa, 85 percent of those who have been forced to stay home said they are either skipping meals or eating less because of the lockdowns, he said.
“We stopped buying meat since the corona started, and fruits,” said Ismail Abdo, 41, who earned a living ferrying tourists on the Nile in the Egyptian town of Luxor before the epidemic closed Egypt’s airports and brought tourism to a halt.
He, his wife, his children and his parents now survive on the $50 a month his father receives in food aid from the Egyptian government — barely enough for a family of eight to eat at all. “We bought meat, chicken or fish at least once a week before,” he said. Cheese, lentils, beans and pasta are now the sum of their daily diet.
Skimping on important foods can also result in what Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, calls “hidden hunger.” Newly impoverished people respond by stopping the purchase of meat, dairy products and fresh vegetables, which can lead to other health problems, he said. Children who miss out on proper nutrients can grow up stunted and with learning difficulties that can impede them for life.
“You can get a victory on the health side of things but have a second losing battle on the food side,” Haddad said.
The diversion of resources from existing health programs to fight coronavirus could lead to as many as 1.2 million extra deaths among children under five over the next six months, or 6,000 a day, the U.N. Children’s Fund warned this week, citing a study by the Lancet Global Health journal.
So far, the most dire forecasts of widespread coronavirus contagion in poverty-stricken countries have not yet materialized. India and the continent of Africa account for one-third of the world’s population but have reported only three percent of the coronavirus case, a little more than 150,000 cases.
Low testing rates will likely explain the lower case numbers but not what seems to be lower death rates or the fact that hospitals and health systems are not being overwhelmed by large numbers of sick people. In India and Africa, about 3 percent of those who have tested positive have died, compared to 6 percent in the United States.
Many developing countries identified their first coronavirus cases later than in the West and locked down more swiftly, helping to avert the surges experienced in Europe and the United States, WHO officials say.
Another likely factor is that populations in the developing world tend to be younger, experts say. The indications so far are that transmission rates are lower in poorer — and younger — countries, Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said at a news briefing.
The average age in many developing countries is up to 20 years younger than in the West, “so probably the consequences of this epidemic will be different,” said Catia Batiste, a professor of economics at Lisbon’s Nova University.
“Perhaps lockdowns might not be the right strategy to deal with the pandemic in these countries,” Batiste said. “Copying the strategy of Western countries might not be the way to go.”
Allowing the virus to linger unchecked — and remain a potential source of reinfection for the wider world — is also not an option, she said.
Although it is still too early to tell how the coronavirus will play out in poorer parts of the world, recent modeling suggests Africa may experience a slow burn of infections rather than the dramatic peaks that have overwhelmed countries in Europe and America, Moeti said. “While covid-19 likely won’t spread as exponentially in Africa as it has elsewhere in the world, it likely will smolder in transmission hot spots,” she said. “Covid-19 could become a fixture in our lives for the next several years.
Yet even if coronavirus does turn out to be less deadly in poorer countries than had been feared, it may already be too late to avert a dramatic increase in global hunger, Haddad said.
Many of the people most threatened by a lack of food live in countries in crisis such as Syria, South Sudan and Yemen, where conflict and displacement have already left tens of millions entirely dependent on food aid to survive.
The pandemic could make dozens more countries vulnerable to hunger unless the world steps up to help, the World Food Program says. The agency will be seeking an estimated $12 billion in donations to buy food, nearly double the amount requested from donors in 2019.
So far this year, the program has received a little under $2 billion, according to its website, leaving a big funding gap. Other U.N. and international agencies are asking for billions more to address a spectrum of issues in struggling countries, from debt relief to the purchase of soap for hand washing.
“When the lockdowns were put in place, we knew what would happen to food and income but we didn’t put anything in place to mitigate the failure,” Haddad said. “That’s the big tragedy.”
Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.