There are increasing risks of war and famine, to add to that of pestilence

June 22, 2020

Having already suffered pestilence, do we need to look out for the other three apocalyptic horsemen from the Book of Revelations: war, famine and death*?


In the past month, there have been some signs. China and India are facing off in the Himalayas, never a good sign when both parties are nuclear-equipped. Cyberwarfare has allegedly increased 20 -fold during the coronavirus lockdown, and the Australian Prime Minister has announced that his country has been targeted by state backed hackers. In April there were similar attacks on the Czech Republic until US Secretary of State Pompeo warned the perpetrators.


All this is on top of a death toll from coronavirus that could be around 500,000 worldwide already.


With public opinion inflamed by restrictions on personal freedom from the lockdown and politicians tempted to play to the nationalist gallery to distract attention from the suffering both physical and economic caused by the disease, the risks of warfare worldwide have risen. One danger is that sabre-rattling to please the home crowd might induce an overreaction and a situation that escalates.


Meanwhile, food prices are rising at a worrying rate. The price of rice, the staple food for nearly half the world’s population, was at one stage up 50% year-on-year. The world price of grain is up about 10% and similarly the price of beef, though the price of hogs is down by around 8% after spiking last year because of swine flu.


According to the Times of India, the price of rice in West Bengal was 45 rupees in April and is now 60 rupees in June. Turmeric powder was 145 rupees in April and is now 250 rupees. Channa dal (chickpeas) were 62 rupees in April and now 120 rupees (all per kilo). For people in marginal jobs, salaries have also been cut so the impact on the standard of living is considerable.


Inflation data in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, released on 17 June, showed the price of food up 15%, generating the largest rise in the cost of living for two years. Inflation is at a double-digit rate and rising in Angola (21.8%), Ghana (11.3%) and Zambia (16.6%).


Locusts have been destroying crops across a band of countries from Pakistan and Northern India, through Yemen to Somalia and Kenya.


Is there a serious risk of famine, as rising costs of living in the poorest countries squeeze incomes, which had already come under pressure due to the global recession?


Food experts seem to think that this will not happen. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) argues that falling prices for sugar, vegetable oils and maize, together with cereal prices that are generally subdued and that rising production levels should hold the lid on prices.


But the United Nations Secretary General has warned of the worst food crisis for 50 years, with the number in extreme poverty (which has been falling sharply in recent years) rising by 50 million this year. Coronavirus may yet impact harvests, on top of the effect of the locusts.


My guess is that the major food markets monitored by economics agencies are likely to have reasonably stable prices and that the price of rice can be pushed down by the release of strategic stockpiles. But famine is often a local phenomenon caused by local problems and I am worried that we may yet have serious food shortages in parts of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia later this year. There may well be a need for humanitarian action.


* Technically, there are three bad horsemen (pestilence, war and famine) and the final white horseman is Christ rescuing the world.


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Douglas McWilliams:   +44 7710 083 652