Can coronavirus create biblical famines?

Can coronavirus create biblical famines?

On Tuesday, the head of the UN's food relief agency warned that the coronavirus pandemic could produce "famines of biblical proportions," as 265 million people across 30 countries face starvation.

And yet, the world right now has an historic abundance of food. How is this possible?

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, historic locust swarms had left tens of millions in East Africa without enough food. And some 85 million people across 46 countries already needed emergency food aid in 2019.


But the coronavirus pandemic, and governments' responses to it, have made matters drastically worse in ways that hurt the neediest countries the most.

First, quarantines, social distancing, and travel restrictions have, in many places, cut the number of people able to work in the fields and farms that are the first link in global food supply chains. The associated economic slowdowns have also put hundreds of millions of people in lower income countries on the brink of poverty, diminishing their ability to afford food.

Second, protectionism is making food more expensive. More than a dozen countries have restricted exports of food for fear that they themselves might run out of it. Leading grain exporters like Russia and Vietnam have already imposed quotas. Others are considering similar measures. Export restrictions send prices higher. When importing countries buy and stockpile more than they need, prices rise further.

Even where food is available, millions of people will soon find themselves unable to afford it.

This is another example of how globalized economic interdependence works well in normal times but can create havoc when crises persuade countries to close their borders.

But hunger isn't just a threat for low-income countries…

Consider these four statistics from the United States, where lines at food banks in large cities are now growing longer.

  • In the US, one of the world's biggest food exporters, almost 12% of households were "food-insecure" and 6.5 million children didn't have enough to eat even before COVID-19 arrived.
  • A report by the US Federal Reserve published in May 2019, a time of strong US economic numbers, found that 27 percent of Americans polled would need to borrow or sell something just to meet an unexpected expense of $400, and 12 percent would have no ability to pay.
  • Thanks to coronavirus-related lockdowns, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past five weeks.
    • Some 43% of US adults say that they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut as a result of the quarantines.

    Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

    That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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    Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

    Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

    To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

    Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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    Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

    What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

    We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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    Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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    50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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    Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

    What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

    Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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