Asia-Pacific countries must take urgent action to tackle COVID-19’s recession-induced hunger

Governments are rolling out unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus packages to prop up their economies. By taking these measures, they are maximizing the chances of a relatively quick economic bounce back. If farmers, for example, are supported so that they can hold on to their assets throughout this crisis, then they will be in a much better position to keep on providing for their families, communities, and towards national food security

Volunteers carry iftar meals to distribute among poor people during ramadan amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 28 April 2020.
Volunteers carry iftar meals to distribute among poor people during ramadan amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 28 April 2020.Reuters

Many uncertainties haunt the world’s campaign to counter the COVID-19 pandemic but one thing is now sure: global economic activity will suffer greatly, with large-scale consequences for the incomes and welfare of all, but especially for the most vulnerable segments of the population and food import-dependent countries.

An absence of timely and effective policy responses will exacerbate an already unwelcome increase in the number of people who do not have enough to eat.

Analyzing data of food supply since 1995, linked to FAO’s statistical development of the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) indicator, and correlating them to past local economic trends in countries that are net food importers, we find that millions of people are likely to join the ranks of the hungry as a result of the COVID-19-triggered recession.

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That number will vary according to the severity of GDP growth contractions. In January, the International Monetary Fund anticipated global GDP would expand by 3.3%, but in April, when much of the world was shutting down to contain contagion, it issued a new forecast of minus 3%. Many countries will experience sharp and painful economic shocks.

The nexus between undernourishment and economic performance was already driving the world away from the goal of eradicating hunger by 2030. The outcome could be worse if current inequalities in access to food are worsened – something that we should all work together to avoid.

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The world is not facing food shortages but this could change in the absence of inclusive and outward looking policy approaches to the virus. From the outset of the pandemic, FAO has advocated that all countries must do their best to keep food supply chains operational. FAO stresses that all countries must foster measures to protect people’s ability to access food that is locally, regionally, and globally available.

Health is the first priority but sufficient and healthy food is a central part of the health response to the pandemic

Governments are rolling out unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus packages to prop up their economies. By taking these measures, they are maximizing the chances of a relatively quick economic bounce back. If farmers, for example, are supported so that they can hold on to their assets throughout this crisis, then they will be in a much better position to keep on providing for their families, communities, and towards national food security.

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Health is the first priority but sufficient and healthy food is a central part of the health response to the pandemic. Liquidity injections and public spending commitments help support demand for fresh agricultural products: good news for farmers and will keep supply chains operating. That’s good news for us all.

Governments have an opportunity to target the required stimulus packages on the poorest and undernourished. Tools such as cash and in-kind transfers, new credit lines, safety nets, purchase for food banks, and food distribution, can be useful.

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FAO recognizes and applauds the Government of Bangladesh for its agricultural and wider economic initiatives in response to the crisis and for its recognition of the crucial importance of the agricultural sector in ensuring food security.

We are committed to maintaining the dynamism of demand, keeping food supply chains operating, and working for food accessibility for all. By working together and considering the global food context, there is great scope to minimize the economic impact of COVID-19 on people’s access to enough affordable, safe, and nutritious food.

*Marco V. Sánchez Cantillo is the deputy director of Agricultural Development Economics Division and Robert D. Simpson is the FAO representative in Bangladesh