These are the four countries about to by plunged into famine by COVID-19

This opinion piece was published by SBS on September 24.

As we sit outside the playground under a scorching sun, Amir tells me that in recent weeks he has skipped many a meal. Children are milling around us. For many of them, he adds, the only food they eat is that provided in school. Amir has had to put his own children to bed hungry more than once, promising them everything will be alright, but not knowing where their next meal would come from. He stares into the distance and offers me another cup of coffee.  

This is the daily hardship for Syrian refugees in Jordan. But that is just a snapshot of a much larger, more daunting picture. I met Amir in late 2018 when he and his family had escaped the terror of violence in north-west Syria, only to endure a new terror – hunger.

A former engineer in Aleppo, he was languishing in a makeshift camp, surviving on little more than bread and tea. Healthy food had become a distant memory.

This week, world leaders are gathering virtually to celebrate the United Nations’ 75th anniversary. Founded in 1945, the organisation can look back at many accomplishments. Yet today the number of people around the world going hungry is increasing at the fastest rate in decades. Amid so much abundance in our world, 690 million people went to bed hungry last year - up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million in five years. COVID-19 is estimated to push another 120 million people over the edge.  

News broke last week that four countries are officially on the brink of famine: Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Amir's reality is one shared by millions of parents in these places, forced from their homes by brutal fighting, and making every effort to keep their children fed. 

But famine is a situation even more torrid than Amir's: it means “starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute child malnutrition levels” on a mass scale. Children and their parents effectively lose the ability to feed themselves, many die from hunger. It is a sad indictment of the state of the world in 2020.

All four countries are ravaged by civil war, and access to nutritious food is fast deteriorating. This is because both conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic have forced cuts to food production and imports, and driven up food prices precisely at a time when people's jobs and incomes are being wiped out. When farmers can't access their lands, crops are left rotting in the fields. When insecurity is rife, markets are dangerous places to go. When food imports and supply chains come to a standstill, the prices of potatoes and cooking oil soar.

Closer to home, the pandemic has also triggered a hunger crisis. A recent World Vision assessment found that a staggering 93 per cent of households surveyed in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines have had their livelihoods affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Monthly incomes have dropped drastically due to strict containment measures. Two in three families are now eating less, with terrible consequences for children's wellbeing and health.  

We are dealing with a humanitarian catastrophe that requires our urgent attention. Only a concerted aid effort can pull Yemen, Congo, South Sudan and Nigeria back from the brink of famine. Australia should not stand on the sidelines and watch while millions of children in these places - as well as those in our own Indo-Pacific neighbourhood - hang by a thread.  

When the Foreign Minister speaks to world leaders this week, she should come prepared. The quickest response would be for Australia to contribute its fair share to the UN's COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response. This plan was drawn up in March to provide food assistance in the world's hunger hotspots, among many interventions. To date, Australia has given a meagre 1 per cent ($38 million) of total funds dispersed - a third of what Denmark, and a seventh of what the UK have provided. Our fair share would be closer to $250 million. But even that is peanuts compared with the $17.6 billion economic stimulus package for our domestic COVID-19 recovery.   

What the Minister should consider is that hunger is not just a humanitarian tragedy, but a political liability. In other words: hunger fuels conflict. As we have seen in Syria and elsewhere, when ordinary citizens cannot feed their children, civil unrest is just around the corner. And when unpopular governments crack down on their frustrated citizens, as they often do, armed violence and humanitarian crisis is the logical consequence. That's why the alarms bells should be ringing.  

Since meeting Amir, I think of him and his two boys nearly every time I eat. As COVID-19 wreaks havoc around the world, a significant shift in government policy and funding is needed. Australia should share more responsibility for preventing famine in the world's hunger hotspots. Children in places devastated by conflict and COVID-19 should matter to us as much as our own. 

Carsten Bockemuehl is the Senior Policy Adviser for Children in Conflict at World Vision Australia 

He has worked to protect children from violence and hardship in Syria, West Africa, Papua New Guinea and at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

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