World Hunger Day Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic: Priorities in Preventing Food Protests

May 28, 2020 marks World Hunger Day, when the world contemplates on how the 820 million food insecure people can be lifted out of their plight. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic disruption it is causing, the focus for this year is on hunger as an issue requiring a global response, amidst rapidly changing environment.

At first glance, one may think that a pause from the previous year’s theme of food sustainability agenda is needed, to be able to focus on the more urgent issue of disruption. In 2019, the agenda prioritised long-term structural issues causing hunger: lack of decent work opportunities (especially for women), inequitable access to education, food production practices that cause soil erosion, and climate change that threatens to reduce the productivity of agriculture.

However, long-term structural issues and short-term disruptions are two sides of the same coin. For instance, during the 2007 food crisis, demonstrations erupted in over 60 countries because international prices of staple items like rice and corn were inflated to two to three times their normal levels, making them inaccessible to poorer communities. Today, riots are also occurring across multiple countries, such as France, Lebanon and Italy. Protesters are claiming that their lost income during the quarantine or lockdown period prevents them from affording the minimum requirements for living with dignity. Food prices are increasing too due to supply chain disruptions when workers in food distribution are quarantined and forced to stop work.

Essentially, disruptions exacerbate pre-existing structural issues faced by communities in obtaining essential commodities, foremost of which is food. It is the same structurally vulnerable groups who suffer most during disruptions: they are women who have fewer job opportunities and individuals who are less educated, among others.

Food protests may also occur in Southeast Asia too, if lockdown measures are extended and yet individuals are not provided sufficient support by their governments.

Moving forward, governments should allocate resources to provide relief or support especially to vulnerable groups highlighted in the longer-term food sustainability agenda, including women, the less educated, and the unemployed. Some states such as Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States have already allocated funding worth more than 10 percent of their GDP to provide these packages.

In the same way that the crisis exacerbates pre-existing issues concerning equity, it also stands to worsen the plight of countries that were already deep in debt or facing currency/debt crises prior to the pandemic. For instance, given the currency crisis in Lebanon, one woman was holding a placard say-ing her income could only afford her two cartons of milk!

In this regard, poorer countries will need special support from the inter-national community as well. For instance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently approved debt relief to 25 countries in view of the pandemic. Other members of the international community may do well to follow the example of the IMF too, redoubling efforts such as providing assistance or delivering food aid.

In today’s globalised and interconnected world, the international community is only as strong as its weakest link. The failure to support poorer individuals and poorer countries is not an option, if the global community is to ride the wave of the current crisis, and to reduce damage from future crises too.