Jul 26, 2021 - Podcasts

How COVID-19 exacerbated the global hunger crisis

The recent protests in Cuba were driven largely by food shortages and prices. But it’s not just Cuba. About a tenth of the world’s population was undernourished in 2020 as world hunger hit a 15-year high. That’s according to a recent report by the United Nations that outlined how the pandemic has reversed years of progress in global malnutrition.

  • Plus, American journalism divided.
  • And, the standout Olympic stars from Team USA.

Guests: Axios' Bryan Walsh, Sara Fischer and Kendall Baker.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, July 26th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: American journalism divided. Plus, the standout Olympic stars from Team USA.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: how COVID-19 has made world hunger so much worse.

The recent protests in Cuba were driven largely around food shortages and prices, but it's not just Cuba - about a tenth of the world's population was undernourished in 2020 with world hunger hitting a 15 year high. That's according to a recent report by the United Nations that outlined how the pandemic has reversed years of progress when it comes to global malnutrition. Axios’ future correspondent, Bryan Walsh has been tracking this and joins us now. Good morning, Bryan.

BRYAN WALSH: Good morning.

NIALA: Before the pandemic, can you tell us what the scope of food insecurity looked like across the globe?

BRYAN: Well, before the pandemic maybe about 658 million or so people were considered hungry. They were food insecure in a severe kind of way. In 2020, that shot up by another 118 million people worldwide. Now you're at 768 million people, which as you said, it's about 10% of the global population. That's the most we've seen going all the way back to 2006.

NIALA: Why did the pandemic make things worse?

BRYAN: I mean, it made things worse because of the economic effects of not being able to work, of not being able to travel. Of course we saw the global economy take a huge hit that was mostly cushioned in developed economies, but in developing economies where it was very hard to do remote work, where there was much less in the way of public money to support people who had lost work, where global trade and lack of global tourism really hit these economies hard, there was nowhere for people to go. And so they dropped - if they were the middle class, they dropped out of the middle class. If they were poor, they got poorer. If they were hungry, they got more hungry and that hasn't really improved.

NIALA: Is it also about our food production systems and supply chains around the world?

BRYAN: That certainly doesn't help. You know, I think there was a lot of disruption going on in that, especially early on, but really this is a function of when the economy gets hit hard in countries that are already closer to the subsistence level that are not doing very well, food is where they really feel that. And we also saw food prices really skyrocket. Food prices globally are almost as high as they were during the Arab Spring, more than a decade ago. And really that was a big factor in those protests, the fact that food prices are growing so high. There was a major food price increase leading up to 2008. And what you saw in both those cases is that high food prices bring people out to protest in any kind of regime. It’s the one thing that authoritarians are really worried about. If you see the price of bread and other staples go up, that will bring people into the streets. We're seeing that, of course, in what's happening in Cuba as well.

NIALA: Right, and we started this conversation mentioning Cuba. Do you think that authoritarian regimes are particularly vulnerable to people protesting?

BRYAN: I think they are because they're limited in what they can do to control that. Food is a global market. Often they can try to buy people off, but more so I think really on a day-to-day level than curtailing civil freedom, civil rights, people need to eat to live. And this is just obviously historically true, you look back to big protest movements, they often start with concerns about hunger, concerned about the price of food that can then of course, lead into other issues that can feed into broader discontent with the regime. But first and foremost, it's because of the price of bread and if you can't control that you're in trouble for any kind of regime, democratic, but especially for authoritarian.

NIALA: Axios’ future correspondent, Bryan Walsh. Thanks for this, Bryan.

BRYAN: Thank you.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with why national journalism’s thriving, as local news struggles.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

American journalism is split into the haves and the have nots. National media outlets on the U.S. coasts are thriving while local news outlets across the country continue to shrink and disappear. I started in local media, which is why I was especially interested in Sara Fischer's reporting on this. Good morning, Sara.

SARA FISCHER: Hi, good morning, Niala

NIALA: Sara, I know we've been seeing the headlines about local news struggling for some time now. How bad is it right now?

SARA: Well, it's bad, but you're starting to see good news too. While historic papers continue to shutter or be gobbled up by hedge funds. There are hundreds of new digital first local media outlets that are starting to be sprung up and so the good news is that there is local news that's starting to rebuild, but the bad news is Niala, it doesn't have as much infrastructure funding momentum as the big newspapers used to have.

NIALA: And how does that differ from what we're seeing from big media companies like the CNNs or the New York Times of the world?

SARA: Well, they're doing great. I mean, you saw a few years ago when CNN said its profit was over a billion dollars thanks to its investments in digital. The local news ecosystem is struggling with things like subscriptions. They're struggling with things like digital because they don't have the same sort of institutional investments being brought in to help them transition into the internet era.

NIALA: And is this largely a financial, a funding, a venture capital problem?

SARA: No, I think it's a societal problem. You know, local readers oftentimes are spending money with national news outlets, right? We hear this from local papers all the time that they're competing with the New York Times for subscriptions.

You know, another trend, Niala is that at the national level, there's so many opportunities for journalists right now. Independent tech platforms like Substack that create opportunities for national journalists to go independent. These opportunities are not thriving at the local level. You know, I talked to one book agent who said she can't sell books at the local level. She can only sell national books. And so this is creating a massive talent problem for local media because they're not able to attract the same type of high-level talent as the big national outlets

And I also think there's not as much institutional infrastructure for local news. We don't have regulatory incentives anymore for local papers to thrive. And I think the people in America get a lot of news for free through big platforms and so paying for their local news is not as interesting or exciting anymore.

NIALA: You can always read more about this in the Media Trends newsletter that Sara Fischer writes. Thanks, Sara.

SARA: Thank you, Niala

NIALA: A new crop of American Olympians is emerging in this year's games. Axios’ sports editor Kendall Baker joins us now to tell us who he's watching in Tokyo. Hey, Kendall.

KENDALL BAKER: Hey, how’s it going?

NIALA: So a lot of big names like Serena Williams and Michael Phelps aren't in the games this year. So who are the new faces of team USA?

KENDALL: Michael Phelps was the star of the Olympics. It's hard to imagine really, but literally since 2004. So it's been like 17 years since he wasn't in the picture. And during most of that time, Usain Bolt was also there. He's obviously not an American, but like when people thought of the Olympics, it's like Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt. They'd be on every advertisement. They were kind of what the coverage was anchored around. So now they’re both gone for the first time in a long time. There's a ton of opportunity for new faces to emerge. I think Simone Biles is obviously, you know, if anybody’s already the face of Team USA, it’s her. I'd also put Katie Ladecky, star swimmer in there. Caeleb Dressel another star swimmer, and then Noah Lyles, track and field.

So I think swimming, track and field and gymnastics are the top three sports. Those athletes get a lot of face time and these four are all competing and favorites to win a lot of medals. So I think those are probably the faces of team USA right now.

NIALA: Who are you most excited about?

KENDALL: Oh, Biles for sure. She's just so clearly the best at what she does in history. Just knowing that you're watching someone who's doING things that nobody else in her sport has ever done, you know, it's hard to turn away from that. And yeah, there’s a lot on the line for her this year.

NIALA: Axios’ sports editor, Kendall Baker. Thanks Kendall.

KENDALL: Thanks.

NIALA: Today marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- landmark legislation protecting the rights of people living with a disability. Today, tens of millions of Americans fall into that category. If that’s you, we want to hear from you for our show this week: did the ADA impact your life for the better? How does it fall short today? Record a short voice memo of your thoughts and text them to me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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