It’s been harrowing 18 months. The global death toll is staggering — 4 million and counting. And while the full impact the pandemic has yet to be gauged, it has dramatically worsened global hunger in 2020.
Up to 811 million people suffered from chronic hunger, up from 690 million before the pandemic, according to this year’s UN report on food security. More than 2.3 billion people lacked year-round access to adequate food — a shocking jump in one year, amounting to the previous five years’ increase combined. Three billion people didn’t have enough money to buy healthy diets.
But for those on the opposite end of the spectrum, 2020 has been a boon.
Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook had combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion in the last year, 25 percent higher than that of the pre-pandemic level. To put that into perspective, it’s enough to end global hunger twice and install broadband connections — one of the most effective ways to reduce inequality — on the entire African continent. Also twice.
Thanks to Amazon’s share almost doubling, as online shopping surged during lockdowns, Jeff Bezos is now estimated to be worth $200 billion. If he decided to use his fortune to lift 500 million people out of hunger, he’d still have $60 billion left over.
It didn’t take long for “Build Back Better,” a classic UN tagline of post-disaster recovery, to become a mantra for officials everywhere. Those three words felt especially poignant as current food systems, providing livelihoods for more than 3 billion people, are one of the main reasons the world is failing to improve food security and rein in global warming.
But eager to reboot the economy back to pre-pandemic levels, countries are wasting a rare opportunity to spend hard money to address inequality and climate change.
The lockdowns have triggered a steep recession. For informal workers, whose work is not registered, not taxed and therefore not protected, the sudden loss of income exacerbated their vulnerabilities. In South America, where more than half of the economy is informal, the lockdowns have cut off sources of income overnight for informal workers. Without access to healthcare or financial services, income losses quickly led to poverty or even death.
But instead of making sure that those informal workers — who needed help the most — received help, countries just kept expanding cash aid. Had they moved those workers from informal to formal economies using flexible approaches, it would have limited the pandemic’s fallout for hundreds of millions of people.
International development and finance organizations are leaving out the crucial role of rural development in post-COVID recovery. About 80 percent of the world’s poorest people struggle to eke out a living in rural areas. For them, agriculture has always been the main livelihood. It remains the main engine of growth for many developing nations. It is perhaps the most important weapon in the battle against poverty and hunger right now. So it’s shocking that it is entirely left out of the post-COVID recovery discourse. An equitable and sustainable recovery is not possible unless these rural populations are integrated into the recovery plan.
Countries are also failing to invest in rural broadband, even though it’s a glaring example of cost-effective investment that can reduce inequality and poverty. E-commerce thrived during the pandemic, but none of the benefits has trickled down to rural areas due to poor infrastructure.
E-commerce requires platform, mobile money or mobile banking, and transportation systems to move commodities. Governments can assume the initial fixed cost to make this happen and then let the private sector take over to expand access. It goes without saying that such efforts should be accompanied by investment in human capital and development of government regulations ensuring equity.
Thankfully, there are some positive signs. The European Union’s largest recovery plan to date, which includes a temporary project to repair the pandemic’s social and economic damages, totals €2 trillion and envisions a more digitally integrated, greener and resilient Europe. It’s an approach that could serve as a model for other countries.
Most important, what matters is identifying and acting on what actually makes a difference for those going to sleep on empty stomach tonight. Repeating hopeful catchphrases is not one of them.
At this rate, the world will miss the global goal of ending hunger in the next decade by a margin of 660 million people, including 30 million who’d fallen into the hunger trap due the pandemic.
A world wrecked by inequality, poverty and global warming isn’t a secure, safe world — for anyone. We have only so much time before reaching a point of no return.
(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)