With the coronavirus now spreading at a horrific pace through much of Latin America, the executive director of the World Food Programme has declared that nations in the developing world would soon face a mega-famine of “Biblical proportions.”
The explanation for this is that while COVID-19 will not directly beget famines, because so many people living in the world’s most fragile economies have no work, they will not be able to pay for food for their families and farmers will have no money for seed or fertilizer.
With so many people and companies clamouring for help, it is easy to understand why the WFP’s David Beasley invoked the Bible at a meeting in Geneva.
Facing so much competition, the WFP needs to bang the drum loudly because developing countries have few resources to deal with any downturns and the fallout from COVID-19 will cripple their fragile economies far worse than they will those of China or the West.
Still, with China and almost all the western economies facing steep costs and rising demands for assistance from their own citizens because of the lockdowns that have been imposed to try to halt the spread of COVID-19, it is difficult to see how an urgent appeal by the UN for $6.7 billion in food aid will be met.
As it is, it will be hard enough to raise the more modest $90 million in assistance that the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance says will be required to help the starving and hundreds of millions more people who already live in poverty and will be hungrier because of the pandemic.
In a transparent attempt to promote Canada’s chances for a non-permanent and veto-less seat on the UN Security Council in a vote that is only a few weeks away, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicized the need for international collaboration Thursday when he co-hosted an hour-long UN video conference.
The UN had called the electronic gathering so that dozens of leaders could express support for mitigating the economic impacts of COVID-19.
The pandemic has given Trudeau a serious issue that he can try to make his own before the UN Security Council vote. But the prime minister’s brief speech did not offer any new money to help the UN.
Nor was there any prescription from Trudeau or anyone else for how the world might get from here to there. It was, rather, a rehash of familiar themes.
“For the global economy to recover, and for our domestic economies to bounce back, we need a global, coordinated plan,” Trudeau said.
Whether any country was swayed by Trudeau, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Germany’s Angela Merkel or France’s Emmanuel Macron to go beyond bland words and provide the resources for concrete action may only be known by the end of the year.
That’s when countries may have a better understanding of just how deep a hole they are in, and how much money they will be willing to gift to others.
There is some evidence now that COVID-19 is not affecting developing nations as badly as had been feared. The best of what is rarely good news about the coronavirus is that there have not yet been large breakouts of the new killer virus among millions of refugees cared for by the UN in Gaza and countries such as Uganda, Lebanon and Bangladesh, where millions of Royhinga Muslims fled after being ruthlessly purged from much of Myanmar.
Nor has the disease yet taken a firm hold in war-ravaged countries such as Syria, Yemen or South Sudan.
Neither was it for reasons that defy easy explanation for why COVID-19 has yet had much impact among India’s one billion people. The infection rate there remains relatively low, despite the fact that the Delhi government’s idea of how to enforce a lockdown was to send hundreds of millions of its poorest citizens back to their hometowns and villages.
A lot of them had to make the journey on foot or by bicycle because the country’s notoriously overcrowded buses and trains were prevented from travelling.
But how can you make sense of how the virus seems to be largely skipping India and refugee camps, where families of eight or 10 people are crowded into one tent or shack, while other impoverished countries have now begun to live through the hell that China endured in February?
Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom have endured similar tribulation, and the United States has been enduring it since April.
The best (or worst) example of this is Latin America. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has ridiculed the need for strong preventative measures such as lockdowns, as U.S. President Donald Trump once did, but his government is now acknowledging more than 25,000 deaths and 400,000 infections.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also been in denial as his country’s death toll has slowly risen to the point where more than 460 people are now dying every day. Chile, Colombia and Peru have been struggling, too.
Numbers have been slowly creeping up in Africa, but they are not yet anything like those reported in Europe.
Whether this is because of good fortune or a lack of money for proper testing is yet unknown.
A factor in the varying rates of death could be that most of the deaths in the West have been people living in elder care homes. Such establishments don’t really exist in poor countries, where for financial and cultural reasons elderly relatives usually live with and are cared for by their kin.
These anomalies and inconsistencies will provide decades of work for researchers and statisticians.
What’s needed today are fewer speeches about good intentions and much more hard talk about what money and resources the West and China are prepared to gift to the world’s poorest countries to help stave off the calamity of COVID-19 and the famines that are likely to follow in its wake.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas