COVID-19 hunger spike leaves 1 in 5 Africans malnourished

Madascar malnutrition
A World Food Programme staff measuring a child in June 2021, in Ambovombe, one of Madagascar's districts with a very high number of malnourished children. A UN report indicates 1 in 5 Africans are malnourished. Copyright: WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana

Speed read

  • Global hunger rose by 161 million in 2020 – UN report
  • Most of the increase linked to COVID-19
  • SDG 2 -- Zero Hunger by 2030 – likely to be missed by a margin of nearly 0.7 billion people

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Global food insecurity increased more in 2020 than in the previous five years put together, with much of the rise in hunger likely linked to COVID-19, a multi-agency UN report says.

Up to 811 million people were undernourished in 2020 – almost a tenth of the world’s population and a rise of around 161 million since 2019.

Hunger levels had already been on the rise for several years before the fallout from the global pandemic, driven by conflict, climate extremes and economic downturns.

“The recent UN report puts figures to the obvious: communities, households, families and children who were nutritionally vulnerable prior to the pandemic are exceedingly more vulnerable now.”

Claire Heffernan, director London International Development Centre

The biggest increase from the pandemic was seen in Africa, where 21 per cent of the population are estimated to be undernourished – more than double the prevalence of any other region.

Overall, more than half of all undernourished people – 418 million – live in Asia, and more than a third – 282 million – in Africa, while 60 million are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But “no region of the world has been spared”, by rising hunger, the heads of five UN agencies wrote in the foreword to the report.

“The high cost of healthy diets and persistently high levels of poverty and income inequality continue to keep healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people in every region of the world,” they wrote.

The report estimates that, on the current trajectory, SDG 2 – Zero Hunger by 2030 – will be missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people, of which about 30 million may be linked to the pandemic.

According to the report, more than 2.3 billion people — 30 per cent of the global population — lacked year-round access to adequate food. It said this figure, which indicates the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity, jumped as much in one year as the preceding five combined.


Children are among the most affected, while gender inequality has also deepened. More than 149 million under-fives were estimated to be stunted, or too short for their age, which can have lifelong consequences.

Meanwhile for every 10 food-insecure men, there were 11 food-insecure women, the report found, up from 10.6 in 2019.

Claire Heffernan, director of the London International Development Centre, told SciDev.Net: “The recent UN report puts figures to the obvious: communities, households, families and children who were nutritionally vulnerable prior to the pandemic are exceedingly more vulnerable now.

“Preventing children from falling on to the pathway to stunting, with its lifelong implications, is an urgent priority.”

The Global Network Against Food Crises described the outlook for 2021 and beyond as “grim”.

“Conflict, pandemic-related restrictions fuelling economic hardship and the persistent threat of adverse weather conditions will likely continue driving food crises,” said a joint statement by the network and USAID, adding that these crises would become more frequent and more severe.

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Nothing short of a “radical transformation” of the agri-food system would lead to achieving the UN goal of ending hunger by 2030, they said in a statement released with the report.

The report comes ahead of three major UN summits later this year which leaders hoped will give the issue of food security some momentum — the UN Food Systems Summit, Nutrition for Growth Summit and COP26 climate change talks.

The report outlines six “transformation pathways” which authors say rely on a “coherent set of policy and investment portfolios” to counteract the hunger and malnutrition drivers.

Among the recommendations is the scaling up of climate resilience across food systems including opening up access to climate risk insurance and forecast-based financing for smallholder farmers. The need for data and new technologies to tackle the problem is also stressed.

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