Starving Children Don’t Cry
by Nicholas Kristof
New York Times
Starvation is agonizing and degrading. You lose control of your bowels. Your skin peels off, your hair falls out, you hallucinate and you may go blind from lack of vitamin A. While you waste away, your body cannibalizes itself: It consumes its own muscles, even the heart.
Yet Abdo Sayid, a 4-year-old boy so emaciated he weighed just 14 pounds, wasn’t crying when he was brought to a hospital recently in Aden, Yemen. That’s because children who are starving don’t cry or even frown. Instead, they are eerily calm; they appear apathetic, often expressionless. A body that is starving doesn’t waste energy on tears. It directs every calorie to keep the major organs functioning.
Abdo died soon after arriving at the hospital. A photographer named Giles Clarke, a friend of mine whom I met on my last trip to Yemen, was there again and captured the scene.
His photographs, including those with this column, are painful to witness, but many families, including Abdo’s, allow photography — indeed, want photos to be circulated — because they hope that the world will understand that children are dying needlessly of hunger, and that help is desperately needed to avert more child deaths.
The world had pretty much licked famine, until 2020. The last famine declared by the United Nations authorities was in a small part of South Sudan for a few months in 2017 — but now the U.N. warns that famine is looming in Yemen, South Sudan, Burkina Faso and northeastern Nigeria, with 16 other countries slightly behind in that trajectory toward catastrophe.
“Famines are now back,” said Mark Lowcock, the United Nations humanitarian chief. “It will be a horrible stain on humanity for decades to come if we become the generation to oversee the return of such a terrible scourge. This is still avoidable.”
We have been privileged to live in a thrilling epoch in history in which child mortality has plunged, disease and famine retreated, literacy soared and human well-being skyrocketed.
At this time of the year I normally counter all my gloomy columns by writing that the previous year was the best in human history, by such metrics as the share of children dying by the age of 5. But 2020 was not the best year in human history. It was an annus horribilis, and UNICEF warns that the result may be 10,000 additional children dying each month from hunger.
The setback in developing countries has been exacerbated by passivity, paralysis and indifference in the United States and Europe, and in international organizations like the World Bank.
The biggest cause of the global crisis is the coronavirus pandemic, but only indirectly. Outside of the rich world, the casualties are not octogenarians with the virus so much as children dying of hunger because of economic disruptions, or middle-aged adults dying of AIDS because they can’t get medicines.
The capital of human suffering today is arguably Yemen, which the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. As we celebrate the new year, Yemeni children like Abdo are dying of hunger.
Yemen’s suffering is complicated. Always poor, the country has been shattered by a war and blockade by Saudi Arabia, with backing from the United States under both the Obama and Trump administrations. (Obama officials have acknowledged, not as candidly as they should, that this was a mistake.) Misrule by the Houthi faction, backed by Iran, has compounded the suffering, as have both cholera and the coronavirus — and donor countries are focused on their own problems and averting their eyes.
So Abdo died.
If you simply look at coronavirus numbers, you might think that poor countries had dodged a bullet. Developing countries have generally avoided high mortality from Covid-19, particularly in Africa.
But that may be changing with a tide of new infections, and in any case the indirect effects have been devastating, so that a pandemic of a coronavirus has been followed by pandemics of hunger, disease and illiteracy. Lockdowns meant that casual laborers had no income, and tuberculosis patients couldn’t get medicine. Campaigns to battle malaria, polio, AIDS and vitamin A deficiency were left in disarray.
The repercussions are endless. The United Nations warns that poverty and disruptions from the pandemic may push 13 million additional girls into child marriages. Disrupted campaigns against female genital mutilation may result in two million more girls enduring genital cutting, the U.N. said, while reduced access to contraception may lead to 15 million unintended pregnancies. The World Bank says an additional 72 million children may be pushed into illiteracy.
“We are increasingly talking about a lost generation, whose potential may be permanently quashed by this pandemic,” said Angeline Murimirwa of Camfed, which supports girls’ education in sub-Saharan Africa.
An expert panel crunched the numbers and estimated that under even a “moderate” scenario of what lies ahead, an additional 168,000 children will die from malnutrition because of the consequences of the coronavirus. Think about that: Abdo times 168,000.
Many others will survive, but with lifelong intellectual impairment, or in some cases permanent blindness, caused by deprivation in 2020 and 2021. This toll is worsened because of indifference in the rich world.
“The magnitude of the problem is an outrage, but it is even more outrageous that there are powerful, proven solutions that are not being delivered at scale,” said Shawn Baker, the chief nutritionist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Some poor countries will be able to vaccinate at most one-fifth of their populations in 2021, suggesting that the pandemic will continue to ping around the globe and smother poor countries. Partly that’s because the United States and other rich countries, at the behest of the pharmaceutical company lobby, refuse to waive patent protections to allow poor countries access to cheaper vaccines.
Gayle Smith of the One Campaign calls for three kinds of measures to help: greater efforts to distribute the vaccine globally, debt relief and assistance from wealthy countries.
The paradox is that 2020 may still be one of the five best years in human history, by such measures as the share of children dying or the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. If the world moves aggressively to address the crisis, the year could be remembered as a blip. But the nightmare is a prolonged crisis in poor countries and a turning point — on our watch — that ends the march of progress for humanity.
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Fighting Inequality as we beat back Covid
by Human Rights Watch
The Other Pandemic: Fighting Inequality as we beat back Covid, by Lena Simet, Komala Ramachandra and Sarah Saadoun for Human Rights Watch.
At the dawn of 2020, our world was already in crisis. High and rising economic inequality meant that someone born with few resources could see their basic human rights, like food and decent housing, violated. Like Sonia Perez, who sells tamales and rice pudding on the streets of New York City, millions of people were struggling to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. The Covid-19 pandemic only made things worse.
Perez, a single mother who supports her four children with her business, had no choice but to stop working once the pandemic intensified. Not only were there no customers, but she feared that her diabetes would put her at greater risk for a serious case of Covid-19.
Like many others with low incomes and few savings, she was more likely to become infected by, and die of, the virus. People with lower earnings saw their jobs disappear at a higher rate; even more so if they are a woman. As a result, many faced hunger, or homelessness.
Many governments did too little to help. And while more than 9 percent of the world’s population experience extreme poverty manifested in a severe deprivation of basic needs, the combined wealth of global billionaires reached new heights. Up by $1.5 trillion in the last year, an amount that could lift everyone in extreme poverty above $5.50/day for a year.
The economic gender gap has widened too, as women have disproportionally lost work, and had lower social protection coverage. With school closures and a move towards digital education, many have had to juggle—or choose between—work and childcare, without supportive government and workplace policies to mitigate the impact.
Covid-19's economic recession is global. But the level of pain largely varies by where a person lives. The governments of the Netherlands or Germany targeted relief at low-income earners, covering up to 90 percent of lost wages if businesses did not lay off their employees. Indonesia provided free medical treatment to all, regardless of their registration to the national health insurance scheme.
In other countries, people desperately in need of support were left high and dry.
In the United States, much of the relief was temporary. In the first months of the crisis, poverty declined due to an expanded social safety net. But much of the relief expired in July. By October, more than 8 million people fell into poverty—measured by the supplemental poverty measure that weighs income with living costs—and one in two households had trouble paying everyday expenses, like food or rent.
Millions of people reported they could not access healthcare, as they lost their insurance. And from the start, relief excluded informal workers or undocumented people, like Sonia Perez.
The disparity reflects not only the world’s differing safety nets and decisions by governments as to whether to protect basic economic rights, but also countries’ choices over the use of Covid-19 relief funds.
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, received the largest Covid-19 emergency financing package (US$3.4 billion) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to protect jobs and businesses, in addition to millions in other forms of direct aid. But it is not clear how these funds were used, and Human Rights Watch found that the vast majority of urban poor in Lagos were left without any financial or in-kind relief.
The global recession will have deep and lasting aftershocks. As governments continue to try to save their economies, they need to ensure that relief reaches the millions of people who are struggling to make ends meet, so that everyone has food, housing, and other essentials, and that relief is not captured by a wealthy few.
Countries will have to take bold action to build towards a more just and rights-based economic recovery that confronts, not exacerbates, inequality. Ensuring a role in decision-making for those most affected by the economic crisis, and those meant to benefit from relief assistance, will be critical.
A rights-based recovery means that governments provide access to affordable healthcare for everyone, protect labor rights, ensure gender equality gains aren’t lost, and protect everyone’s access to decent and affordable housing and essential utilities, like water and sanitation.
It means investing in public services and social protection systems, and introducing or strengthening progressive fiscal policies and taxation to fund programs, so that everyone can fulfill their right to a decent standard of living.
Most importantly, it means investing in neglected communities and avoiding harmful fiscal austerity, like cutting social protection programs. As experiences from Spain and Argentina painfully demonstrate, such harmful austerity measures are detrimental to human rights and exacerbate inequality, pushing people into greater economic vulnerability.
In coming years, governments are expected to face budget shortfalls and growing challenges repaying their debts. But international economic actors, like the World Bank and IMF, should support countries in establishing adequate social protection floors and progressive tools for raising revenue instead of enforcing harmful austerity. Portugal’s opposition to such austerity in 2015 demonstrates that another way of bringing an economy back on track is possible; one that occurs alongside stronger social protection, a higher minimum wage, and better pensions.
Addressing economic inequality should be a priority for economic recovery efforts to prevent hundreds of millions of people falling into extreme poverty, many of whom already face intersectional forms of discrimination that limit their access to economic rights.
Governments should be treating economic rights as the basic legal duties they are, and ensure they guarantee them, for everyone.
Had these issues been addressed before the pandemic, its rights impacts may have been less severe for Sonia Perez, and countless others like her. It is time for governments to correct past mistakes, and commit to imagining paths toward a more equal and rights respecting world.
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