The galloping Covid-19 global emergency has increased the number of people at risk of destitution around the world to 235 million in 2021, a 40 per cent jump compared to 2020, the UN reported.
Keeping the near destitute alive in conditions of minimal human dignity will require at least $35 billion in 2021 as aid for the world’s most vulnerable countries.
This is a huge funding requirement in an age of donor fatigue exacerbated by severe budgetary pressures on rich countries, which are struggling with their own Covid-19 emergencies.
The UN’s latest Global Humanitarian Overview published today sets out plans to reach 160 million of the most vulnerable people in 56 countries at a cost of $35 billion. Richer countries have invested nearly $10 trillion in staving off economic disaster from Covid-19 but the poorest countries are helpless in comparison.
The UN’s emergency relief chief Mark Lowcock recognizes the funding crunch caused by Covid-19 in donor countries, but adds, “As we approach the end of this difficult year, we face a choice. We can let 2021 be the year of the grand reversal – the unravelling of 40 years of progress – or we can work together to make sure we all find a way out of this pandemic.”
The pandemic has impacted dramatically people already reeling from conflict, record levels of displacement, climate change shocks and other humanitarian emergencies. Now, “multiple” famines are looming even as the relief systems of the UN and its partners are overwhelmed.
“We thought that nearly 170 million people in the world would need humanitarian assistance this year. Coming into 2021, we think that is going to be 235 million. The increase arises almost entirely because of Covid-19,” he warns.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres urges solidarity among nations to “stand with people in their darkest hour of need”, as Covid-19 continues to worsen.
He insists that the UN’s humanitarian system is reliable and again proved its worth in 2020 by “delivering food, medicines, shelter, education and other essentials to tens of millions of people.” But the crisis is far from over.
For the first time since the 1990s, extreme poverty will increase, life expectancy will fall and the world’s weakest people will face a return to famine becoming commonplace again.
A near doubling in the number of people facing starvation is likely mainly because of Covid-19 impacts on poverty. Many girls out of school will never go back. Parents cannot confidently expect babies to reach their fifth birthday. The annual death toll from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria is set to double.
The virus itself does not do the most harm in vulnerable countries. That comes from impacts like rising food prices, falling incomes and economic recession. The poorest people in the poorest countries are the hardest hit.
International donors gave a record $17 billion in 2020 for collective humanitarian response. Data show that 70 per cent of the people targeted for aid were reached, an increase compared to 2019.
But as needs are rising, funding remains less than half of what the UN and partner organizations asked for. Pledges are falling short for next year as well.
Within the humanitarian community, Covid-19 is causing fever pitch in a debate on whether those who deliver humanitarian services in the field should rely on governments and institutions or find new private funding sources or even crowd source when possible.
The coronavirus presents unique challenges because it goes well beyond a health crisis to economic crises including lock downs and near ruination of large employers like the tourism, hospitality and travel industries.
For instance, the financial pressure from the pandemic is a main reason for a recent decision by Oxfam, one of the world’s best-known humanitarian groups, to lay off 1,450 staff and withdraw from 18 countries.
The multilateral system represented by the UN is also being challenged. At first glance, the pandemic appears to have reinforced the pull towards international cooperation but each country is handling the crisis on its own, especially developing countries that do not have efficient health infrastructures or enough funding.
The every-man-for-himself scramble for vaccines illustrates how a vital resource needed by everyone is allocated first to richer countries and then to poorer ones, provided they can afford the price and have the structures needed to use vaccines correctly.