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How the pandemic is making a global food crisis worse

As the coronavirus pandemic tears across the globe, the toll exacted in lives lost and ruined grows by the day. But for those already in need, especially the hungry and the starving, COVID-19 is accelerating their nightmares. David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the pandemic supply chain and how to keep 270 million people fed in a year of crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the pandemic tears across the globe, the toll exacted in lives lost and ruined grows by the day.

    But for those already in need, the hungry and starving, COVID-19 is accelerating their nightmares.

    Here's Amna Nawaz with the head of a global agency on a mission to help.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The World Food Program is warning that, by the end of this year, it could have to feed the most people in the agency's history, nearly 140 million. That's 40 million more than they expected pre-COVID.

    In a new report, it warns that COVID-19 has exacerbated already existing crises, like climate change and displacement from war.

    To help keep up with the increased need, the WFP is calling on developed nations to provide $5 billion over the next six months.

    David Beasley is the WFP's executive director. And he joins me now from South Carolina, where he was once governor.

    David Beasley, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.

    And we should remind people, even before the pandemic, you were warning world leaders there was a coming disaster, that 2020 could be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

    We're more than halfway through 2020 now. What can you say the effect of the pandemic has been on world hunger?

  • David Beasley:

    Well, you're exactly right.

    Before COVID hit the scene, I was telling world leaders that 2020 was going to be your worst humanitarian crisis, disaster since World War II. And many of the leaders were like, wow. And I began — to begin to break it down from Yemen, to Syria, to Lebanon, to the desert locusts, to the Sahel, and Sudan, and Ethiopia, and DRC, and let me keep going.

    So we had seen literally in the last couple of years — and I'm not talking about people going to bed hungry. I'm talking about people that are on the brink of starvation. That number has gone from 80 million to 135 million people as of last year. That's pre-COVID.

    Now, with COVID — and we were feeding about 100 million people last year. Now, with COVID, we're looking at the people going from — I mean, on the brink of starvation going from 135 million to 270 million people around the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Help us understand a little bit about what exactly is unfolding on the ground.

    You have continued to travel in recent weeks, as safely as you can, to see those WFP operations on the ground. What are you seeing? What does that, sort of people on the brink of starvation, look like on the ground?

  • David Beasley:

    Well, it was already pretty bad in many locations, like Yemen, devastated from years of war, as well as Syria. Then you have economic collapse inside Lebanon.

    So, we were seeing the hunger rate just spiking in these regions, with the pricing of food and the unavailability of food. And the list goes on.

    But let me just give you a good example. Take Ethiopia, a very sizable nation with a lot of poverty, a lot of hunger. But COVID has just dynamically impacted, on top of desert locusts, which was already devastating certain parts of that country.

    Well, you wouldn't think about it, but Ethiopia, 50 percent of their export revenues is tourism. That is completely shot and gone. Well another major part of their economy is remittances from their families, friends and loved ones that live and work, let's say, in the United States. That's gone.

    And I could keep going from country to country. Nigeria, 94 percent of their export revenues is oil. Oil prices have tanked. Compound that with Boko Haram and militancy, the Sahel.

    And so, as you start breaking it down country by country, and then now understanding, like in the Caribbean and Central America, we're coming into the hurricane and cyclone season. We're heading into the lean season in South Sudan now, which means flooding and droughts, already on top of a very desperate situation.

    And so the numbers are beginning to spike. We're seeing economic deterioration. We're seeing supply chain disruption. You remember, just a few months ago in the United States, people were panicking just trying to get toilet paper. You can imagine, if that happens in one of the most sophisticated supply chain systems in the world, what do you think is happening in Chad or DRC or Somalia?

    Just imagine the disruption of the availability of food. And these people don't have a pantry full of food. They live literally day to day from hand to mouth. And so, if you do a lockdown in an area, it is devastating.

    So, if we're not there with a safety net program for people in this situation, you're talking about mass starvation. You're talking about potential of mass migration and/or you're also talking about destabilization, political unrest, violence in an extraordinary way.

    So, the cost will be a lot more than it will if we come in and address it on the front end.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned those supply chain disruptions.

    Of course, people are seeing that around the world. But you rely on those. Getting the food in means you have the planes to fly them in, that you have healthy workers on the ground to move the supplies, you have got trucks to drive them around and deliver them.

    Every supply chain has been disrupted. Have yours? Even if you get the money coming in now, can you get it where it needs to go?

  • David Beasley:

    Yes, in fact, this is a significant and very serious issue.

    We have got the supply chain system to move our food, and we're doing that very well. But because the airline industry has all but shut down with passengers and cargo, you can't move COVID supplies. So, while we have been able to move our food supplies in a pretty good way, though there are hiccups and issues, the COVID supplies can't get there from testing kits, to ventilators, to masks, and PPE, and let me just keep going.

    Well, we are picking up that logistics service. So, we are now the logistics humanitarian backbone for the entire United Nations systems, from WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM, et cetera, and all the NGOs.

    And if we don't have the money for that — and that's money that WFP needs to help all agencies around the world. It is critical that we have that money, and we have it now. And, quite frankly, we run out of that money in about three weeks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David Beasley, you're asking for billions of dollars to help keep those tens of millions of people from starvation.

    The U.S. is facing a deep recession. Economies around the world are contracting. How do you convince world leaders right now that this is something they need to invest and turn their resources towards?

  • David Beasley:

    You know, the response so far has been amazing. Quite frankly, it's been shocking.

    In the United States Senate and the House. I have been talking with Republicans and Democrats, and though they're fighting on everything, when it comes to food aid and international foreign support and these types of issues, because they understand it's in the national security interests of the American people.

    But many countries are strapped. And I know the European community is. We're making the case, if you don't help us now, it's going to cost you. And let me give you an example of what happened in the Syrian war that's ongoing.

    We would feed a Syrian for about 50 cents a day, and that's almost double the normal rate, but it's a war zone, and the logistics of costs are higher. That same Syrian, who does not want to leave Syria, but if they don't have food and any degree of peace, they will do what any mom and dad would do. They will get their children to a place where they can feed their family.

    So, if that family ends up in Berlin or Brussels, it's not 50 cents a day. The humanitarian support package is 50 to 100 euros per day. So it's 100 times the normal cost. And, quite frankly, when we feed about 100 million people, we survey people all the time. They don't want to leave home. They really want to be in their home area.

    It doesn't matter whether it's Guatemala, or whether it's in Nigeria, or whether it's in Syria. People generally don't want to leave home. And so, if we're there for them with a safety net program in this time of crisis, I believe we can avert famine, we can avert mass migration, and destabilization. But we need the money, not next year, but we need it right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a crisis on top of another crisis.

    That is David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • David Beasley:

    Thank you.

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