Washington – The United Nations warned Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic could trigger famine in already vulnerable countries as the worldwide freeze on commerce sent shock waves through financial markets.
The bleak warning came as deaths from the virus surpassed 174,000 worldwide, with governments anxiously trying to chart a path out of the unprecedented global health and economic emergency.
Debates are raging worldwide over when and how to relax lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus.
Many leaders fear triggering another wave of infections but are also worried about the mounting economic costs and signs of social tension.
The economic impact of the pandemic could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe,” with the number of people suffering from acute hunger projected to nearly double to 265 million this year, the U.N.’s World Food Programme warned.
“We are on the brink of a hunger pandemic,” WFP director David Beasley told the U.N. Security Council in a video conference.
“Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.”
The worst-case scenario could see famine in some three dozen countries, Beasley said.
As the WFP warned of potential famine, Group of 20 agriculture ministers pledged to ensure “sufficient” global food supplies for “the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people.”
Freezes on whole sectors of commerce are already playing out dramatically on oil markets, where prices have crashed due to the drop-off in energy demand and a supply glut.
In hard-hit Europe, some countries are cautiously creeping out from confinement, though large gatherings appear to be out of the question for the forseeable future.
While Germany is allowing small shops to reopen, authorities cancelled Oktoberfest, a beloved beer-swilling festival in southern Bavaria, for the first time since World War II.
Spain announced it was scrapping its annual bull-running festival in Pamplona.
In one week though, children in Spain, who have been house-bound for over a month under a tight lockdown, will be allowed to accompany parents on food shopping and other sanctioned outings.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has also promised to soon unveil a plan to start reopening the hard-hit country.
But in a sign of what lies ahead, the gradual awakening of Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus first emerged, remains tinged with fear about fresh outbreaks of the disease.
The industrial city was released from quarantine two weeks ago, but many restaurants, for instance, have not reopened or are still only able to offer outdoor seating and takeout.
“We have very, very few customers,” said Han, the 27-year-old owner of a soy drink stall.
“Everyone is worried about asymptomatic infected people,” she said. “Business is just not as good as before.”
Singapore, meanwhile, has become a sober example of how infections may ebb and flow, with the financial hub extending lockdown measures Tuesday as it battles a second wave of contagion.
Elsewhere, there is fear over how the most vulnerable will survive lockdowns that breed their own dangers.
In many parts of the world, including Latin America, weeks of confinement have seen a surge in calls to helplines for victims of domestic abuse.
Eighteen women have been killed by their partner or ex-partners during the first 20 days of Argentina’s mandatory quarantine.
Appeals to helplines have also shot up nearly 40 percent.
“Every day, a women is abused, raped or beaten at home by her partner or her ex,” said Ada Rico, from the NGO La Casa del Encuentro.
Misery on the continent will be compounded by a looming economic recession, which a U.N. body says will spike poverty rates in the worst contraction in a century.
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