EAST LONDON, South Africa – Even as thousands died and millions lost their jobs when the Covid-19 pandemic swept South Africa last year, Thembakazi Stishi, a single mother, was able to feed her family with the constant support of her father, a mechanic in a Mercedes factory.
When another Covid-19 wave hit in January, Ms Stishi’s father became infected and died within days. She was looking for work and even went door to door offering the cleaning service 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, nobody works, but they don’t understand,” said Ms. Stishi, 30, as her 3-year-old daughter tugged at her shirt. “That’s the hardest part.”
The economic catastrophe caused by Covid-19, now well into its second year, has battered millions, including the Stishi family, who have already lived hand-to-mouth. Now, in South Africa and many other countries, many more have been pushed over the edge.
According to an analysis by the World Food Programme, the United Nations’ anti-hunger organization, an estimated 270 million people will face potentially life-threatening food shortages this year – compared to 150 million before the pandemic. The number of people on the brink of famine, the most severe stage of a hunger crisis, rose from 34 million to 41 million last year, the analysis shows.
The World Food Program further sounded the alarm last week in a joint report with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, warning that “conflict, the economic impact of Covid-19 and the climate crisis are expected to lead to higher levels of acute food insecurity. in 23 hunger hotspots in the next four months”, mainly in Africa, but also in Central America, Afghanistan and North Korea.
The situation is particularly bleak in Africa, where new infections have increased. Aid agencies have been sounding the alarm in recent months over Ethiopia – where the number of people affected by famine is greater than anywhere else in the world – and southern Madagascar, where hundreds of thousands are facing famine after an exceptionally severe drought.
For years, global hunger has steadily increased 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 strikes.
But according to humanitarian groups, the economic shocks of the pandemic over the past two years have accelerated the crisis. In both rich and poor countries, the rows of people who have lost their jobs extend beyond the food pantries.
As a new wave of the virus grips the African continent, the toll has torn the informal safety net — especially financial aid from relatives, friends and neighbors — that often supports the world’s poor in the absence of government support. Now hunger has become a defining feature of the widening gap between rich countries returning to normal and poorer countries sinking deeper into crisis.
“I’ve never seen it as bad worldwide as it is now,” said Amer Daoudi, senior director of operations for the World Food Program, of the food security situation. “Usually you have two, three, four crises – like conflict, famine – at once. But now we are talking about quite a few major crises happening around the world at the same time.”
In South Africa, typically one of the most food-safe countries on the continent, hunger has rippled across the country.
In the past year, three devastating waves of the virus have claimed tens of thousands of breadwinners, leaving families unable to buy food. Months of school closures put an end to the free lunches that fed about nine million students. A strict government lockdown last year closed informal food vendors in townships, forcing some of the country’s poorest residents to travel further afield to get groceries and shop at higher-end supermarkets.
An estimated three million South Africans lost their jobs, pushing unemployment to 32.6 percent – a record high since the government began collecting quarterly data in 2008. In rural parts of the country, years of droughts have killed livestock and crippled farmers’ incomes.
The South African government has provided some relief by introducing $24 monthly allowances and other social subsidies last year. Nearly 40 percent of all South Africans were still hungry by the end of the year, according to an academic study.
In Duncan Village, the sprawling township in the Eastern Cape province, the economic lifelines of tens of thousands of families have been destroyed.
Before the pandemic, the orange-blue sea of corrugated iron huts and concrete houses buzzed every morning as workers boarded minibuses into the heart of nearby East London. An industrial hub for car assembly plants, textiles and processed food, the city provided stable jobs and steady incomes.
“We always had enough — we had enough,” said Anelisa Langeni, 32, sitting at the kitchen table of the two-bedroom house she shared with her father and twin sister in Duncan Village.
Her father worked as a machine operator in the Mercedes-Benz plant for almost 40 years. By the time he retired, he had saved enough to build two more single-family homes on their lot — rental properties that he hoped would provide some financial stability for his children.
The pandemic has jeopardized those plans. Within weeks of the initial lockdown, tenants lost their jobs and could no longer afford to pay their rent. When Ms. Langeni was fired as a waitress at a seafood restaurant and her sister lost her job at a popular pizzeria, they leaned on their father’s $120 monthly pension.
Then in July he collapsed with a cough and fever and died on the way to hospital from suspected Covid-19.
“I couldn’t breathe when they told me,” said Mrs. Langeni. “My father and everything we had, everything, disappeared.”
Unable to find work, she turned to two elderly neighbors for help. Bought a shared cornmeal and cabbage with her husband’s retirement. The other neighbor offered food every week after her daughter came to visit—often with enough shopping bags to fill the back of her gray Honda minivan.
But when a new coronavirus strain hit this province in November, the first neighbor’s husband died — and his retirement ended. The other’s daughter died of the virus a month later.
“I never thought it would be like this,” said that neighbor, Bukelwa Tshingila, 73, as she wiped her tear-soaked cheeks. Across from her in the kitchen, a portrait of her daughter hung above an empty cupboard.
Two hundred miles to the west, in the Karoo region, the toll of the pandemic has been compounded by a drought extending into the eighth year, turning a landscape once lush with verdant shrubbery into a drab, ashen.
On his 2,400-acre farm in the Karoo, Zolile Hanabe, 70, sees more than just his income drying up. Since he was about 10 years old and his father was forced by the apartheid government to sell the family’s goats, Mr. Hanabe was determined to have his own farm.
In 2011, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, he used the savings from his work as a school principal to lease a farm, buying five cattle and ten Boer goats, the same breed his father had raised. They grazed on the bushes and drank from a river that ran across the property.
“I thought, ‘This farm is my legacy, this is what I will pass on to my children,'” he said.
But in 2019 he still rented the farm and as the drought worsened, that river dried up, 11 of his livestock died, the bushes shrivelled. He bought fodder to keep the others alive and cost $560 a month.
The pandemic exacerbated his problems, he said. To reduce the risk of contamination, he fired two of his three farmhands. Feed sellers also cut staff and increased prices, putting even more pressure on his budget.
“Maybe I can survive one of these crises,” said Mr. Hanabe. “But both?”