Media CenterCoronavirus Could Be Last-Straw Disaster for Millions Facing Hunger Around the World

Photo by Will Baxter/CRS

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Tom Zolper
Catholic Relief Services
[email protected]
(410) 951-7110


BALTIMORE, MARYLAND, April 20, 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the risk of a severe food crisis in places where locust swarms, flooding, drought and conflict already are pushing millions of people to the brink. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) joins other humanitarian groups in calling for the United States to come to the aid of these, the world’s most vulnerable people, in their time of dire need.

“The pandemic is a crisis on top of a crisis in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia,” said CRS president and CEO Sean Callahan. “The severe health risks are only part of the coronavirus outbreak. Lockdowns are hampering people from planting and harvesting crops, working as day laborers and selling products, among other problems. That means less income for desperately hungry people to buy food, and less food available at higher prices.”

In East Africa, desert locust swarms have exploded as a result of heavy rainfall and cyclones likely linked to climate change. Crop damage already is extensive, and numbers of locusts could increase at least 20 times by June and spread to many countries. As many as 35 million people face severe hunger in the region. The problems are being compounded by the coronavirus response. Flight restrictions have delayed deliveries of pesticides. At the current rate of spraying, stocks in Kenya will soon run out.

In West Africa, where intense urbanization, climate change, poverty and conflict are causing widespread food insecurity, this is the lean season when food from the annual harvest has run out for many people. Even without coronavirus, about 17 million people in West and Central Africa are predicted to be in a crisis situation for food by June and August. Coronavirus could kill or further weaken many of them.

Virus prevention measures are also complicating normal humanitarian strategies. Jerry Farrell, CRS deputy country representative in Nigeria, said his teams developed new protocols that limit people with good vouchers from coming together in groups at normally teeming markets, but at least initially distribution of food was slowed – at the very time it was most needed.

“Trying to encourage social distancing is extremely difficult in a culture where people are warm and affection. It’s counterintuitive. It’s not what people are taught,” Farrell said.

In the dry corridor of Central America, nearly 1 million small farmers have endured consecutive seasons of drought which have destroyed corn and bean harvests and left little in the way of reserves. Many farmers surveyed by CRS in March said they had only enough food to feed their families for a month. Coronavirus restrictions make matters worse. This is the planting season, but many farmers are hesitant to plant for fear of contracting the virus, or of being detained by police. Reduced planting would be disastrous for the already food insecure region.

“What little money families can scrape together, they will likely use to buy food instead of seeds and fertilizer for the upcoming planting season, putting the next harvest at risk,” said Blain Cerney, head of program for CRS in El Salvador.

Meanwhile, rice and wheat prices are surging.

Worldwide school closures are also increasing food insecurity. About 1.5 billion children are currently out of school globally due to coronavirus restrictions, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports. But millions of children in developing countries receive their only meal of the day at school through food distribution programs such as the U.S. government’s McGovern-Dole program.

International and local humanitarian organizations such as CRS are responding as best they can to the multiple threats of food security. For instance, in East Africa CRS is pursing emergency funding to support pesticide spraying, surveillance of locust swarms, distribution of new seeds and animal feed and other support. This effort will integrate measures to help people avoid the coronavirus. CRS is working hard to continue its meal program for school children in nine countries, despite disruptions. In Ethiopia, the organization and its partners have been able to continue feeding 1.5 million people emergency food rations, taking added precautions to protect staff and local people from virus exposure.

But funding is short for this critical response. For instance, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has secured about $114 million to fight the locust swarms in East Africa, but that is close to $40 million less than needed. CRS is among many humanitarian organizations calling on the U.S. Congress and administration to substantially increase funds for coronavirus-related activities overseas, and the impacts of the pandemic. A fourth stimulus bill now being considered in Washington would be the perfect vehicle for this aid.


Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality. CRS’ relief and development work is accomplished through programs of emergency response, HIV, health, agriculture, education, microfinance and peacebuilding. For more information, visit or and follow Catholic Relief Services on social media in English at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube; and in Spanish at: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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Communications Writer

Tom Zolper
April 20, 2020

Tom Zolper is the communications writer for Catholic Relief Services, based out Baltimore. Tom writes and edits stories and works with media outlets to place stories that help tell of CRS' work. He works closely with the CRS advocacy team, assisting them in advocating through the media.

Tom has a deep background in journalism and communications, including work as a newspaper...More