COVID. Conflict. Collapsing economies. Drought. Now we’re facing a new disaster: “famines of biblical proportions in 2021”.
That’s according to the 2020 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, David Beasley, who runs the World Food Program and has added its voice to a growing cacophony of alarms, stating “we’re on the brink of a hunger pandemic”.
The world we live in is an immensely complex device. Everything is connected. Everything is balanced. Everything – be it global stock markets or supply chains – is part of an extensive interconnected system.
Which is why the COVID-19 pandemic and a series of environmental disasters have thrown some serious spanners in the works.
Australia’s Royal Commission into recent catastrophic bushfires warns of “compounding disasters” affecting the “economy, critical infrastructure and essential services”.
Defence Force chief Angus Campbell has warned disasters are already “more extreme and more common”.
Now Mr Beasley is using the Nobel Prize to highlight the warning signs his 20,000 staff are seeing worldwide.
Refugee camps are overflowing, their occupants having fled their fields. Farmers are leaving their land fallow due to a lack of labour, seed and feed. And many of those crops that have been planted are wilting under drought or being washed away by storms.
“It’s getting worse out there … (and) our hardest work is yet to come,” he said.
Beasley says world leaders must be alerted to “this tragedy that we are facing – crises that really are going to be extraordinary over the next, who knows, 12 to 18 months”.
And that’s just one of the known unknowns the world faces in 2021.
Worse are the unknown unknowns.
“Ultimately, the longer-term consequences of this pandemic – like all previous pandemics – are simply unknowable to those who must endure them,” says Professor of political science Andrew Latham.
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STARVATION, DESTABILISATION, MIGRATION
“2021’s going to be a very bad year,” Beasley says. “You’re not going to have enough money to fund all the projects you historically fund. Right now, we really need to focus on icebergs, and icebergs are famine, starvation, destabilisation and migration.”
International efforts to stimulate the global economy have only delayed the onset, he says.
“We were able to avert it in 2020 … because the world leaders responded with money, stimulus packages, deferral of debt,” he told the Associated Press.
But that money is evaporating. And Beasley believes most governments don’t have enough reserves for a second shot.
For 2021, that leaves much of the world noticing increased food prices and empty shelves – and about 270 million people facing crisis levels of hunger.
“There’s about three dozen countries that could possibly enter famine conditions,” Beasley said.
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The World Food Program believes Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Burkina Faso have already tipped into famine. Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lebanon, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somali, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe aren’t far behind.
Beasley says his “great hope” is that those billionaires who have profited from disrupted supply chains would step forward with donations for the likes of global school lunch programs.
Their own wealth is at risk.
COVID remains rampant. Climate disasters continue apace. Civil unrest is surging.
It’s all acting as a feedback loop on the global economy. And it’s not that this is unexpected. History clearly defines the flow-on effect plagues have on national security, food security and civil unrest. Throw in a natural disaster or two and you get a real crisis.
THE PANDEMIC PARADOX
History is full of pandemics. Their catastrophic economic and cultural symptoms are well defined.
We’re not immune.
“People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life,” says political science researcher Professor Andrew Latham.
Pandemics alter society’s views of the world. Pandemics up-end fundamental economic systems. Pandemics sway the balance of power between nations.
Plague ravaged the Roman Empire in its dying days. Out of its ashes rose Christianity, feudalism and the concept of personal freedoms.
The Black Death of the Middle Ages created the concept of labour rights, a middle class and an attitude that technology could solve a multitude of ills.
COVID, while not as fatal as these pandemics, could still be equally as earth shattering.
“Will the bumbling efforts of the open societies of the West to come to grips with the virus shattering already-wavering faith in liberal democracy, creating a space for other ideologies to evolve and metastasise?” Professor Latham asks.
“COVID-19 may be accelerating an already ongoing geopolitical shift in the balance of power between the US and China … (and) COVID-19 seems to be accelerating the unravelling of long-established patterns and practices of work, with repercussions that could affect the future of office towers, big cities and mass transit, to name just a few.”
Australia’s Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements warns: “We are likely to see more compounding disasters on a national scale with far-reaching consequences.”
“Compound disasters may be caused by multiple disasters happening simultaneously, or one after another. Some may involve multiple hazards — fires, floods and storms. Some have cascading effects — threatening not only lives and homes, but also the nation’s economy, critical infrastructure and essential services, such as our electricity, telecommunications and water supply, and our roads, railways and airports,” the report reads.
Princeton University international affairs analyst Professor Michael Oppenheimer agrees we are entering an era of disasters. And warns we’re not ready for it.
“Each disaster could compound the damage of the next, with less and less time for people to recover in between,” he writes in Foreign Affairs.
Professor Oppenheimer says the Paris Climate Accord is not proving to be the vaccine our climate systems need. And that means compounding, and overlapping, weather disasters are becoming much more likely.
A hurricane or cyclone strike does much more than up-end trees, flatten houses and flood fields. The wheels of industry stop turning. Distribution networks crawl to a halt. Supplies – be they industrial, medical or food – are strained. Insurance claims, lost tax, lost consumption – all have global reverberations.
Superstorm Sandy in 2012 caused $US80 billion in damage. Two or three such superstorms will create a crisis.
Add one to pandemic, drought and civil unrest and you get: “The interaction of extreme events creates risks of an entirely new type and magnitude,” Professor Oppenheimer writes. “The bottom line is that few if any countries are sufficiently prepared to deal with what is in store.”