EAST LONDON, South Africa – Even as thousands died and millions lost their jobs when the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged South Africa last year, Thembakazi Stishi, a single mother , was able to feed his family with the constant support of his father, a mechanic in a Mercedes factory.
When another wave of Covid-19 struck in January, Ms Stishi’s father was infected and died within days. She looked for work, even going door-to-door to provide housekeeping for $ 10 – to no avail. For the first time, she and her children go to bed hungry.
“I’m trying to explain that our situation is different now, no one is working, but they don’t understand,” said Ms Stishi, 30, as her 3-year-old daughter pulled on her shirt. “This is the hardest part.”
The economic disaster triggered by Covid-19, now in its second year, has struck millions of people like the Stishi family who were already living hand to mouth. Now, in South Africa and many other countries, many more have been pushed to their limits.
An estimated 270 million people are expected to face life-threatening food shortages this year – up from 150 million before the pandemic – according to the analysis of the World Food Program, the United Nations anti-hunger agency. The number of people on the brink of famine, the most severe phase of a food crisis, has jumped to 41 million people today from 34 million last year, according to the analysis.
The World Food Program sounded the alarm again last week by a joint report with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, warning that “the conflict, the economic repercussions of Covid-19 and the climate crisis are expected to lead to higher levels of acute food insecurity in 23 hunger hot spots over the next four months”, mainly in Africa but also in Central America, Afghanistan and North Korea.
The situation is particularly grim in Africa, where new infections have increased. In recent months, aid agencies have sounded the alarm over Ethiopia – where the number of people affected by famine is higher than anywhere in the world – and southern Madagascar, where hundreds of thousands of people are on the verge of famine after an extremely severe drought.
For years, hunger in the world has been constantly increasing as poor countries face crises ranging from armed groups to extreme poverty. At the same time, climate-related droughts and floods have intensified, overwhelming the ability of affected countries to respond before the next disaster.
But over the past two years, economic shocks from the pandemic have accelerated the crisis, aid groups say. In rich and poor countries alike, lines of people who have lost their jobs are stretching out of pantries.
As another wave of the virus grips the African continent, the toll has torn the informal safety net – including financial aid from family, friends and neighbors – which often supports the world’s poor by lack of government support. Today, hunger has become a defining feature of the growing divide between rich countries which are returning to normal and poorer nations which are sinking deeper and deeper into crisis.
“I have never seen this so serious on a global scale as it is now,” said Amer Daoudi, senior director of operations for the World Food Program, describing the food security situation. “Usually you have two, three, four crises – like conflict, famine – at the same time. But now we are talking about a number of important crises happening simultaneously across the world. “
In South Africa, generally one of the most food insecure countries on the continent, hunger has spread across the country.
In the past year, three devastating waves of the virus have swept away tens of thousands of breadwinners, leaving families unable to afford food. School closures for months wiped out free lunches that fed an estimated nine million students. A strict government lockdown last year shut down informal food vendors in townships, forcing some of the country’s poorest residents to travel further afield to shop for groceries and shop at more expensive supermarkets.
Three million South Africans are estimated to have lost their jobs and pushed up the unemployment rate at 32.6 percent – a record since the government began collecting quarterly data in 2008. In rural parts of the country, years of drought have killed livestock and crippled farmers’ incomes.
the The South African government has provided some relief, the introduction of monthly allowances of $ 24 last year and other social grants. Also at the end of the year, nearly 40 percent of all South Africans were affected by hunger, according to an academic study.
In Duncan Village, the sprawling township of the Eastern Cape Province, the economic lifelines of tens of thousands of families have been destroyed.
Before the pandemic, the teal and orange sea of corrugated iron shacks and concrete houses buzzed every morning as workers boarded minibuses bound for the heart of nearby east London. An industrial hub for automotive and textile assembly plants and processed foods, the city offered stable jobs and stable incomes.
“We’ve always had enough – we’ve had a lot,” said Anelisa Langeni, 32, sitting at the kitchen table in the two-bedroom house she shared with her father and twin sister in Duncan Village. .
For almost 40 years, his father worked as a machine operator at the Mercedes-Benz plant. By the time he retired, he had saved enough to build two more single-family homes on their land – rental units he hoped would provide some financial stability for his children.
The pandemic has turned these plans upside down. A few weeks after the first foreclosure, tenants lost their jobs and could no longer pay rent. When Ms. Langeni was fired from her job as a waitress at a seafood restaurant and her sister lost her job at a popular pizza restaurant, they relied on their father’s $ 120 monthly pension.
Then in July, he collapsed with a cough and fever and died of suspected Covid-19 en route to hospital.
“I couldn’t breathe when they told me,” Ms. Langeni said. “My dad and everything we had, it’s all gone.”
Unable to find work, she turned to two older neighbors for help. A shared corn flour and cabbage bought with her husband’s board. The other neighbor offered food every week after her daughter visited – often carrying enough grocery bags to fill the back of her gray Honda minivan.
But when a new variant of the coronavirus hit that province in November, the first neighbor’s husband died – and his pension came to an end. The other’s daughter died from the virus a month later.
“I never imagined it would be like this,” said neighbor Bukelwa Tshingila, 73, wiping her tear-soaked cheeks. Across from her in the kitchen, a portrait of her daughter hung over an empty cupboard.
300 km to the west in the Karoo region, the pandemic’s toll has been exacerbated by a drought that is stretching into its eighth year, transforming a once lush landscape of green shrubs to a dull, ashy gray.
Standing on his 2,400-acre farm in the Karoo, Zolile Hanabe, 70, sees more than his income drying up. As he was around 10 years old and his father was forced to sell the family’s goats by the apartheid government, Mr. Hanabe was determined to have his own farm.
In 2011, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, he used the savings he had made as a school principal to rent a farm, purchasing five Boer cattle and 10 Boer goats, the same breed his father had raised. They grazed the bushes and drank from a river that ran through the property.
“I said to myself, ‘This farm is my heritage, it’s what I’m going to pass on to my children,’” he said.
But in 2019 he was still renting the farm and as the drought intensified that river dried up, 11 of his cattle died, the shrubs shriveled. He bought food to keep the others alive, at a cost of $ 560 per month.
The pandemic has made his problems worse, he said. To reduce the risk of infection, he laid off two of his three farm workers. Food vendors have also cut staff and raised prices, slashing its budget even further.
“Maybe in one of these crises I could survive,” Hanabe said. “But both? “