The United Nations last month marked its 75th birthday, at a General Assembly like no other. 

Conducted against the background of the COVID pandemic – forcing most world leaders to speak via pre-recorded video messages – a record number of member states took part in the general debate, reminding us of the UN’s power to bring together dignitaries and – in theory – forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. 

But as politicians and diplomats celebrated the UN’s 75th anniversary, for millions of the world’s people, especially in poor and war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Mali, things are about as bad as they have ever been in those 75 years.

Coronavirus Nigeria food aid

 People queue to receive food aid following a 14-day lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Abuja, Nigeria, on 3rd April. Parts of Nigeria are now on the brink of famine. PICTURE: Reuters/Afollabi Sotunde/File photo.

Take hunger, for example. The number of women, men and children around the world going hungry is increasing at the fastest rate in decades. Despite so much abundance in our world, 690 million people went to bed hungry last year – up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million in five years. 

COVID-19 is estimated to push another 120 million people over the edge by the end of this year. And, sadly, children are bearing the brunt of the current food crisis. A toxic mix of destitution, armed conflict, climate change, and now the pandemic and its knock-on effects has put children’s health and long-term development at grave risk. Millions are on the brink of losing their futures as a result of rising poverty and pressure to earn money instead of going to school. School closures across the developing world are having a particularly catastrophic impact, as they give many children at least one decent meal each day and, through quality education, lift their prospects of a brighter future.

"Communities going hungry is bad enough, but last month the world learned that in some countries, hunger is about to evolve into something far more sinister – famine. Parts of Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, and Nigeria all on the brink. Famine means families lose the ability to feed themselves, become entirely dependent on outside support and, ultimately, many people die from hunger."

Communities going hungry is bad enough, but last month the world learned that in some countries, hunger is about to evolve into something far more sinister – famine. Parts of Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, and Nigeria all on the brink. Famine means families lose the ability to feed themselves, become entirely dependent on outside support and, ultimately, many people die from hunger.

The four countries – like many others such as Syria, Afghanistan or Myanmar – are experiencing a perfect storm of armed conflict and a pandemic that have conspired to push families out of their homes, force cuts to national food production and imports, and drive up food prices, precisely at a time when people's jobs and incomes are being decimated.Closer to home, the pandemic has also triggered a hunger crisis. A recent World Vision assessment found that a staggering 93 per cent of households in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines have had their livelihoods affected by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Monthly incomes have dropped drastically due to strict containment measures, and two-thirds of families are now eating less, with terrible consequences for children's wellbeing and health.  

In short, we are dealing with a global humanitarian catastrophe that requires our urgent attention, and it is clear that without significant help from governments like ours, the level of suffering and instability in these regions will last for years, long after the virus will be gone.

Only a concerted aid effort can pull the likes of Yemen, Congo, South Sudan and Nigeria back from the brink of famine. Only an urgent, global effort will ease the deprivations in countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar or Afghanistan.

And Australia cannot stand on the sidelines and watch while the lives millions of children in these places hang by a thread. Sadly, in the Prime Minister's UN address last week we heard little about Australia's commitment to extinguish the fire that is raging in the world's biggest, most protracted emergencies. 

The quickest and most effective response to this crisis would be for Australia to contribute its fair share to the UN's COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response. This plan was drawn up in March to contain the virus and provide food assistance in the world's hunger hotspots, among other interventions. 

But Australia has to date given a paltry one per cent ($A38 million) of the total funds dispersed – a third of what Denmark, and an eighth of what the UK have provided. Our fair share would be closer to $A250 million. While $A250 million might seem like a big call, it is still less than 1.5 per cent of the $A17.6 billion economic stimulus package slated for Australia’s domestic COVID-19 recovery. And as we are reminded each day this pandemic continues to ravage the global economy, there is no domestic recovery without a global recovery.

The government must also consider this: hunger is not just a humanitarian tragedy, but a political liability, too. Essentially, hunger fuels conflict. As we have seen in Syria and elsewhere, when ordinary citizens cannot feed their children, civil unrest is just around the corner. And when unpopular governments crack down on frustrated citizens, as they often do, armed violence and humanitarian crisis is the logical consequence. That's why the alarms bells should be ringing.

"The government must also consider this: hunger is not just a humanitarian tragedy, but a political liability, too. Essentially, hunger fuels conflict. As we have seen in Syria and elsewhere, when ordinary citizens cannot feed their children, civil unrest is just around the corner. And when unpopular governments crack down on frustrated citizens, as they often do, armed violence and humanitarian crisis is the logical consequence. That's why the alarms bells should be ringing."

There have been some positive moves. World Vision welcomed Australia’s commitment to addressing the impact of the pandemic and economic and social aftershocks with $A280 million to meet critical medical and humanitarian needs of Pacific nations, Timor Leste and partner countries in South-East Asia, as well as a $A60 million package to support ASEAN nations under the Partnerships for Recovery program. 

The two recent announcements of an $A80 million commitment to the GAVI COVAX Facility Advance Market Commitment and a further $A123 million to the COVAX vaccination facility are also positive steps to help end the pandemic in the long term.

But the damage already wrought by COVID in the lives of millions of children in conflict-affected countries outside of the Indo-Pacific  needs further and urgent action by governments like ours.Without it, the aftershocks of the pandemic will be felt by those children for decades to come. And Australia will not be insulated as the world's conflict zones remain COVID-19 and hunger hotspots. 

Carsten Bockemuehl WVA

Carsten Bockemuehl is the senior policy adviser for children in conflict at World Vision Australia. He has worked to protect children from violence and hardship in Syria, West Africa, Papua New Guinea and at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.