Hunger, maternal deaths and stillbirths have soared during the pandemic.

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A woman with her twins in a health clinic in South Sudan, where tens of thousands of people are suffering famine.A woman with her twins in a health clinic in South Sudan, where tens of thousands of people are suffering famine.Sam Mednick/Associated Press

By Rick Gladstone

    The pandemic has contributed to soaring hunger and acute declines in maternal health care that threaten tens of millions of people, the United Nations said Wednesday, underscoring the disproportionate spillover effects on the world’s poor.

    The number of people worldwide requiring urgent food aid hit a five-year high in 2020 — reaching at least 155 million — while the risk of maternal and newborn deaths surged because of a shortage of at least 900,000 midwives, or one-third of the required global midwifery work force, the United Nations said in a pair of reports produced with other groups.

    The World Food Program, the anti-hunger agency of the United Nations, said in a statement that the key findings from the food report showed that its warnings of severe hardships during the pandemic had been validated, and that “we are watching the worst-case scenario unfold before our very eyes.”

    The food report covered 55 countries and territories, including three — Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen — where it said that at least 133,000 people were suffering famine, the most severe phase of a hunger crisis.

    In 38 countries, at least 28 million people were one step away from famine, the report said.

    While the report said violent conflict was the main driver of the hunger crisis, it said that economic shocks — often from the pandemic — had replaced weather disasters as another main cause of food insecurity.

    In the second report, the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s leading provider of family planning services, said the pandemic had made a worldwide midwife shortage worse, “with the health needs of women and newborns being overshadowed, midwifery services being disrupted and midwives being deployed to other health services.”

    It cited a study published in The Lancet medical journal in December, showing that alleviating the midwife shortage could avert roughly two-thirds of maternal and newborn deaths and stillbirths, saving 4.3 million lives a year.


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