EAST LONDON, South Africa — Even as thousands died and millions lost their jobs when the Covid-19 pandemic engulfed South Africa last year, Thembakazi Stishi, a single mother, was able to feed her family with the steady support of her father, a mechanic at a Mercedes plant.
When another Covid-19 wave hit in January, Ms. Stishi’s father was infected and died within days. She sought work, even going door to door to offer housecleaning for $10 — to no avail. For the first time, she and her children are going to bed hungry.
“I try to explain our situation is different now, no one is working, but they don’t understand,” Ms. Stishi, 30, said as her 3-year-old daughter tugged at her shirt. “That’s the hardest part.”
The economic catastrophe set off by Covid-19, now deep into its second year, has battered millions of people like the Stishi family who had already been living hand-to-mouth. Now, in South Africa and many other countries, far more have been pushed over the edge.
An estimated 270 million people are expected to face potentially life-threatening food shortages this year — compared to 150 million before the pandemic — according to analysis from the World Food Program, the anti-hunger agency of the United Nations. The number of people on the brink of famine, the most severe phase of a hunger crisis, jumped to 41 million people currently from 34 million last year, the analysis showed.
The World Food Program sounded the alarm further last week in a joint report with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, warning that “conflict, the economic repercussions of Covid-19 and the climate crisis are expected to drive higher levels of acute food insecurity in 23 hunger hot spots over the next four months,” mostly in Africa but also Central America, Afghanistan and North Korea.
The situation is particularly bleak in Africa, where new infections have surged. In recent months, aid organizations have raised alarms about Ethiopia — where the number of people affected by famine is higher than anywhere in the world — and southern Madagascar, where hundreds of thousands are nearing famine after an extraordinarily severe drought.
For years, global hunger has been steadily increasing as poor countries confront crises ranging from armed groups to extreme poverty. At the same time, climate-related droughts and floods have intensified, overwhelming the ability of affected countries to respond before the next disaster hits.
But over the past two years, economic shocks from the pandemic have accelerated the crisis, according to humanitarian groups. In rich and poor countries alike, lines of people who have lost their jobs stretch outside food pantries.
As another wave of the virus grips the African continent, the toll has ripped the informal safety net — notably financial help from relatives, friends and neighbors — that often sustains the world’s poor in the absence of government support. Now, hunger has become a defining feature of the growing gulf between wealthy countries returning to normal and poorer nations sinking deeper into crisis.
“I have never seen it as bad globally as it is right now,” Amer Daoudi, senior director of operations of the World Food Program, said describing the food security situation. “Usually you have two, three, four crises — like conflicts, famine — at one time. But now we’re talking about quite a number of significant of crises happening simultaneously across the globe.”
In South Africa, typically one of the most food-secure nations on the continent, hunger has rippled across the country.
Over the past year, three devastating waves of the virus have taken tens of thousands of breadwinners — leaving families unable to buy food. Monthslong school closures eliminated the free lunches that fed around nine million students. A strict government lockdown last year shuttered informal food vendors in townships, forcing some of the country’s poorest residents to travel farther to buy groceries and shop at more expensive supermarkets.
An estimated three million South Africans lost their jobs and pushed the unemployment rate to 32.6 percent — a record high since the government began collecting quarterly data in 2008. In rural parts of the country, yearslong droughts have killed livestock and crippled farmers’ incomes.
The South African government has provided some relief, introducing $24 monthly stipends last year and other social grants. Still by year’s end nearly 40 percent of all South Africans were affected by hunger, according to an academic study.
In Duncan Village, the sprawling township in Eastern Cape Province, the economic lifelines for tens of thousands of families have been destroyed.
Before the pandemic, the orange-and-teal sea of corrugated metal shacks and concrete houses buzzed every morning as workers boarded minibuses bound for the heart of nearby East London. An industrial hub for car assembly plants, textiles and processed food, the city offered stable jobs and steady incomes.
“We always had enough — we had plenty,” said Anelisa Langeni, 32, sitting at the kitchen table of the two-bedroom home she shared with her father and twin sister in Duncan Village.
For nearly 40 years, her father worked as a machine operator at the Mercedes-Benz plant. By the time he retired, he had saved enough to build two more single family homes on their plot — rental units he hoped would provide some financial stability for his children.
The pandemic upended those plans. Within weeks of the first lockdown, the tenants lost their jobs and could no longer pay rent. When Ms. Langeni was laid off from her waitressing job at a seafood restaurant and her sister lost her job at a popular pizza joint, they leaned on their father’s $120 monthly pension.
Then in July, he collapsed with a cough and fever and died of suspected Covid-19 en route to the hospital.
“I couldn’t breathe when they told me,” Ms. Langeni said. “My father and everything we had, everything, gone.”
Unable to find work, she turned to two older neighbors for help. One shared maize meal and cabbage purchased with her husband’s pension. The other neighbor offered food each week after her daughter visited — often carrying enough grocery bags to fill the back of her gray Honda minivan.
But when a new coronavirus variant struck this province in November, the first neighbor’s husband died — and his pension ended. The other’s daughter died from the virus a month later.
“I never imagined it would be like this,” that neighbor, Bukelwa Tshingila, 73, said as she wiped her tear-soaked cheeks. Across from her in the kitchen, a portrait of her daughter hung above an empty cupboard.
Two hundreds miles west, in the Karoo region, the pandemic’s tolls have been exacerbated by a drought stretching into its eighth year, transforming a landscape once lush with green shrubs into a dull, ashen gray.
Standing on his 2,400-acre farm in the Karoo, Zolile Hanabe, 70, sees more than his income drying up. Since he was around 10 and his father was forced to sell the family’s goats by the apartheid government, Mr. Hanabe was determined to have a farm of his own.
In 2011, nearly 20 years after apartheid ended, he used savings from working as a school principal to lease a farm, buying five cattle and 10 Boer goats, the same breed his father had raised. They grazed on the shrubs and drank from a river that traversed the property.
“I thought, ‘This farm is my legacy, this is what I will pass onto my children,’” he said.
But by 2019, he was still leasing the farm and as the drought intensified, that river dried, 11 of his cattle died, the shrubs shriveled. He bought feed to keep the others alive, costing $560 a month.
The pandemic compounded his problems, he said. To reduce the risk of infection, he laid off two of his three farm hands. Feed sellers also cut staff and raised prices, squeezing his budget even more.
“Maybe one of these crises, I could survive,” Mr. Hanabe said. “But both?”