Members of the Suruwaha tribe in Amazonas, Brazil. In an open letter to the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, figures including Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, David Hockney and Paul McCartney warned the pandemic meant indigenous communities in the Amazon faced “an extreme threat to their very survival”. Photograph by Sebastião Salgado.

NASHVILLE, TN ­–A hunger specialist with Bread For the World (BFW) says 94 million people are not getting enough to eat because of the coronavirus pandemic and the number is increasing quickly.

“The world has never seen the hunger crisis that is coming–265 million will face starvation in 2020,” said Dulce Gamboa, Senior BFW Catholic Latino Associate. Gamboa works with the faith-based NGO that organizes Christians to advocate for aid programs with the U.S. Congress. BFW is dedicated to ending hunger at home and abroad.

The pandemic and the collapse of economies around the world is increasing food insecurity everywhere, even in developed countries like the U.S.

Tens of millions of American families are falling into hunger, according to the Brookings Institute. Researchers conducted a COVID Impact Survey and released it last month. Forty percent of single mothers with children under 12 reported they were running out of food and couldn’t buy more.

Shelves at your local grocery store are probably not stocked like they usually are. Food banks are running out of food and people wait in cars for hours to get a bag of groceries.

Adults are missing meals to keep children fed. But many children are still going hungry. Feeding America, an agency that works with hundreds of food banks, estimates the number Americans who will go to a food bank in its network will increase from 37 million to 54 million over the next 4 months.

People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt.

Gamboa told reporters last week that COVID-19 is driving up hunger in countries already suffering from food shortages. “For example, people in Angola, South Sudan, Yemen, and the drought-affected parts of Africa as well as Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and Ecuador, are already acutely food insecure and at greater risk of starvation from COVID-19,” she said.

Outside of wartime, the largest collapsed economy is in Venezuela. The pandemic is devastating millions there because so many families derive some income from the informal economy. But overall economic activity has been severely cut back and now the pandemic is strangling the informal sector.

“What you have in Venezuela, you have economic crisis on top of a nutritional crisis,” Gamboa said. Guatemala and Honduras are expecting more than a doubling in 2020—perhaps as many 3 million more people—in need of emergency food assistance in 2020 than in 2019.

Gamboa said at least 113 million people around the world live in low-income villages, barrios, slums, shanty-towns, and ghettos, which by definition means “close quarters”.   Social distancing is next to impossible.

“People are saying we are going to die from hunger before we die from coronavirus,” Gamboa said.

People are especially at risk in South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria because of the on going armed conflict in those countries. War disrupts trade and normal economic activity and prevents people from farming or some other livelihood and that increases food insecurity in those places.

Gamboa’s group is urging the U.S. to lead a global response to the pandemic and put $12 billion in food, health, humanitarian assistance, economic relief, and access to new vaccines, diagnostics and treatment for COVID-19.

The pandemic has stopped migration all over the globe because borders have closed. There is little international travel, resettlement and refugee programs have stopped, and family immigration to the U.S. has ground to a halt because people have not been able to travel.

There is still some movement of labor across borders.  “The movement is in a category that we now call essential workers As you might imagine health workers of all types are considered to be essential workers,” said Demitrios Papademetriou, co-founder of Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Papademetriou said most developed countries want to continue to have access to agricultural workers. “The food supply in all of the advanced countries relies very much on agricultural workers from elsewhere,” he said.

Many migrants are returning to their country of origin. Romanians officials say 1.3 million Romanians returned in the last seven weeks. And many asylum seekers who had been waiting along the Mexico-U.S. border have given up and returned to their home countries.

Trying to figure out what will happen in the next 6 months depends on how long and how devastating the recession will be for the wealthy countries. Papademetriou compared it to the Great Depression. “We have not experienced anything that deep, not even during and immediately after the Second World War,” he said.

Papademetriou said remittances will take an enormous hit in developing countries. Last month the World Bank estimated that remittances from foreign workers sent to their families will drop by $100 billion this year, then a week later changed their estimate to $142 billion.

“For the people who receive that money, for whom remittances are essential–a lifeline–the concern that we should all have is that the lifeline will be much thinner and more precarious in the months and year or two ahead,” said Papademetriou.

In South America and Borneo, the pandemic is pushing desperate populations to seek survival in the rain forest. Dan Nepstad, President Earth Innovation Institute, has worked on rain forest issues for more than 30 years.

“In Manaus (Brazil) and Borneo (SE Asia) our teams tell us the health systems are already being overwhelmed. There are mass graves in the outskirts of Manaus,” Nepstad said.

He said people who have lost their jobs in the city get by returning to the forest for subsistence. “They will clear a patch of forest, dry it out as much as they can, set it on fire and that prepares a patch of the land for planting. With the nutrient rich ash from burning that patch of forest they can cultivate beans, rice, maniocs, bananas, and plantains and get by and whatever they can, they can sell. It’s a precarious existence that goes back thousands of years,” Nepstad said.

He said the burning season is about to begin in the Amazon which is a time of respiratory illness in a normal year. “This year it will intersect with the pandemic and will probably present increased illnesses and death,” he said.

Five hundred years ago indigenous people sickened and died by the thousands during the European colonization of the Americas. Nepstad said there are still isolated tribes in the Amazon and there is an effort underway to keep them that way.

At the same time Nepstad said there are lots of indigenous people in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil who are living in very hard times.

“They fall into this category of needing small streams of revenue to stay alive, to have access to medicine and health facilities. And they are reaching out for help basically in the form of donations, in the form of protection against exposure to the virus.”