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‘Hunger pandemic’ threatens Latin America

LIMA: Workers carry a bag with the body of a COVID-19 victim out of a refrigerated container before its cremation at the El Angel crematorium in Lima. —AFP

GENEVA: The coronavirus crisis is pushing 40 million people into food insecurity in South and Central America and the Caribbean, the UN warned Tuesday, calling for urgent action to avert a “hunger pandemic”. The UN’s World Food Program says that in the 11 countries where it operates in the region, the number of people facing severe food insecurity has increased from 3.4 million at the start of the year to 14 million. But including those in moderate food insecurity would take the number up to around 40 million, due to the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, Miguel Barreto, the WFP’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said Tuesday.

The alarm came as Latin America and the Caribbean on Monday passed 80,000 COVID-19 deaths, according to an AFP count based on official figures, as the virus accelerates across the region. “We are really worried about this health trend,” Barreto told reporters in Geneva via video-link from Panama. “Unfortunately, the news is not good either when it comes to the food security situation. “Our projections paint a stark picture. “We need to act quickly to prevent this crisis from becoming a hunger pandemic,” he said.

Harvest fears

In the region, the WFP operates in the Central American “Dry Corridor” states of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua; in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru in South America; and in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the Caribbean. Barreto said the three main concerns were Haiti, the Dry Corridor, and migrants in South America. In Haiti, the number of people in severe food insecurity has doubled from 700,000 in December to more than 1.7 million. There, as in the Dry Corridor, “they had a drought at the end of 2019. Now, with COVID-19, they are more impacted and devastated and these people are suffering much”, said Barreto.

If the next harvest in September is poor, “the situation is going to deteriorate further”, he warned. Barreto said WFP needed $400 million to provide assistance in the region just for 2020, but so far, the financial support forecast was “very low”. Barreto said the WFP across the region was mostly working through cash-based transfers rather than food distribution, which had reduced the loss rate along the way. While the WFP does not operate in troubled Venezuela – from which many have fled as migrants to neighboring countries – it is negotiating with the government and expects to return before the end of 2020 after a 45-year absence.

Brazil’s virus cases

Brazil on Tuesday recorded its highest daily jump in new coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 35,000 registered in 24 hours, the health ministry said. The country, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, after the United States, reported 34,918 new cases and 1,282 new deaths in the past 24 hours. That brought Brazil’s total caseload to more than 923,000, and its death toll to 45,241. Experts say under-testing in the country of 212 million people probably means the real figures are much higher. The grim new record came as the World Health Organization’s top official for the Americas again voiced concern over the situation in Brazil.

“Brazil has 23 percent of all cases and 21 percent of all deaths in our region. And we are not seeing transmission slowing down,” Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told a news conference. Brazil has struggled to set a strategy for dealing with the virus. President Jair Bolsonaro, who has famously compared the virus to a “little flu,” has clashed with state and local authorities over their use of stay-at-home measures to contain it. The far-right leader argues the economic impact of such measures risks being worse than the virus itself, and has instead touted the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments, despite uncertainty about their effectiveness against COVID-19.

Peru’s deaths surge

Peru’s health ministry said Tuesday that the hard-hit nation’s coronavirus death toll had reached 7,056, the third-highest in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. Officials said the number of confirmed cases is now beyond 237,000 in Peru, which has been under a nationwide lockdown for three months. With a population of 33 million, Peru has the second-highest number of confirmed cases in Latin America after Brazil.

Nevertheless, Health Minister Victor Zamora told reporters that the number of new cases has begun to decrease. Peru’s healthcare system is on the verge of collapse, with more than 10,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals. Seventy percent of Peru’s cases have been reported in the Lima metropolitan area, home to a third of the country’s population. The death toll includes more than 200 inmates who caught the disease in Peru’s overcrowded prisons, at least 170 police officers working to enforce curfews and border closures, and more than 50 medical personnel, according to official figures. —Agencies

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