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Pandemic could mean 260 million people worldwide ‘marching toward starvation’

The United Nations World Food Program warned this week that as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the number of people facing food crisis could double -- to 260 million worldwide. David Beasley, the organization’s executive director, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how the developing world, already suffering due to climate change and conflict, is faring amid this new disaster of COVID-19.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, the United Nations World Food Program warned that, as a result of the coronavirus, the number of people facing food crisis around the world could double to 265 million people.

    For how the developing world is faring, already suffering in many places from the effects of climate change and conflict, I'm joined by David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.

    David Beasley, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    First of all, you came down with COVID-19 some weeks ago, and you have been quarantined. How are you doing now?

  • David Beasley:

    Well, I will tell you, Judy, fortunately, I didn't get an extreme case where I had to go to the hospital.

    But it just lingered for literally about two-and-a-half, three weeks, and have a little fever, a little ache and pains. But I have cycled through it. I am so much better, and I'm grateful to be talking with you today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're very glad to hear that.

    You are saying this week to the United Nations, to anybody who will listen, that, as the world deals with this terrible health crisis, at the very same time, there's another crisis having to do with food.

  • David Beasley:

    Well, before COVID came on the scene, literally in the last six months, I had been telling leaders around the world, and especially in Europe, that we had a perfect storm coming.

    We literally were going to see 2020 being the worst humanitarian crisis year since World War II, because of Yemen and Syria and South Sudan, the deterioration of the Sahel, climate extremes, cyclones and hurricanes, Sudan, Ethiopia, DRC. And you just can't imagine all these things together.

    Then desert locusts came upon that. And I'm like, this is just terrible, and then COVID. We couldn't believe it. And so we were already calculating 135 million people around the world before COVID marching to the brink of starvation.

    And now, with the new analysis with COVID, we're looking at 260 million people, and I'm not talking about hungry. I'm talking about marching toward starvation. And that is a catastrophe in itself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You know, that's a number that I think is almost impossible for us to comprehend, that that many people could be that close to starving.

    David Beasley, how has COVID complicated your work? Clearly, the numbers are potentially bigger, but how has it changed the work you have to do?

  • David Beasley:

    Judy, it's compounded the problems in so many different ways, economically, but more so, at this stage, in terms of supply chain.

    If we can't move food, move commodities, move supplies, then, obviously, even if we have money, if we can't get the food to the people — you know, you can't go two weeks without food. That's just the reality of life.

    So, out of the 135 million people that we were saying on the brink of starvation, we feed about 100 million. Out of those, 30 million depend on us 100 percent. So, if we don't have access to that 30 million, we literally could see 300,000 people die per day over a 90-day period.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can you get it done, David Beasley? I mean, when you think about the magnitude of what you're facing, and the constraints now on these countries that you count on to give you money, can you actually get it done?

  • David Beasley:

    We can.

    And that's one thing I love about the World Food Program. Literally, when a lot of other organizations are having to leave countries, we actually step in, in emergency operations. We know what we're doing; 97 percent of our people in the field are still in the field doing what they do best.

    If we have the money and we have the supply chain, we can keep people alive. But, right now, we — it's not COVID vs. hunger. We have got to work together on these two issues, because they are tied together. It transcends borders, it transcends cultures, and it certainly transcends politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tell us just briefly about a place like Yemen, racked by war for years, and now that's a country that is — I can't — we can't even imagine what they are facing.

    How can the World Food Program make a difference there?

  • David Beasley:

    Yemen is a disaster in so many ways, a nation of about 29 million people ravaged by war. The health care system is just deplorable.

    The economy was terrible before the war started, one of the poorest countries on Earth, population of 29 million people, of which we feed about 12.5 million people. And that means about 16.5 million people get their food otherwise.

    So, if COVID hits Yemen, it will not only be, I mean, destroying our supply chain, but the health care system and the immunity system of a very fragile society, I can't imagine it being anything but just catastrophic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And on the continent, a place like the continent of Africa, where you have so many countries that don't have the health care infrastructure, in addition to the health — I mean, I'm sorry — to the food challenges, how are you having to change what you do there?

  • David Beasley:

    Well, we are working with leaders right now and maintaining supply chains in terms of moving the supplies, making certain that the food can get from the field to the market to the consumer, and doing everything we possibly can there.

    We're trying to uniquely assess the original — not original, but the initial hot spots that we will have in countries like South Sudan, who are losing their revenue and will lose their remittances, and the list goes on.

    And so we're analyzing out every country to make certain that we're doing whatever we possibly can.

    But you got to remember, while everybody is focused on COVID right now, desert locust is devastating Kenya, and Somalia, and South Sudan and Ethiopia. So, we're dealing with several so-called plagues at one time here, and it's not easy.

    But our teams are up for it. We work in war zones. We worked in Ebola. We know what we're doing. If we have the resources, and we get the dynamics out of our way, so that we can do what we do best, we can save lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you say to Americans who say, we know the need is great out there, but right now we have got 22 million Americans just in the last month who filed for unemployment, we have got almost 800,000 people who have come down with COVID-19 in this country; it can't be a priority for us?

    What do you say to them?

  • David Beasley:

    Since I took this role, the funding, when I arrived, was $1.9 billion.

    With the Trump administration and the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States Congress, you know, Judy, they seem like they're fighting over everything. But when it comes to food security and helping the most vulnerable people in the world, all of them have come together.

    And our funding went up to $3.4 billion. And the United States has not been backing down. We all want the United States to be strong, because, when the United States is strong, it helps us help other people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A strong message.

    David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, thank you so much, and we're glad to see you feeling better.

  • David Beasley:

    Thank you, Judy. Always good to see you.

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