NEW YORK - The United Nations appealed Tuesday for a record $35 billion to provide life-saving humanitarian support for 160 million people next year, as the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions into extreme poverty worldwide.
"Conflict, climate change and COVID-19 have created the greatest humanitarian challenge since the Second World War," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a recorded message for the launch of the appeal.
He called on donors to help those at greatest risk "in their darkest hour of need."
The U.N. says the actual need is even higher - some 235 million people, or one in every 33 people on the planet, requires aid or protection. This is a 40% increase over 2020.
There are more than 63 million confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the pandemic's spread. Nearly 1.5 million people have died and tens of millions have lost jobs and livelihoods during the lockdowns imposed to stop the virus from spreading.
"It's not the disease itself, nasty as it may be ... that is most hurting people in vulnerable countries. It's the economic impact," U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told reporters. "Rising food prices, falling incomes, drops in remittances, interrupted vaccination programs, school closures - these hit the poorest people in the poorest countries hardest of all."
The U.N. has already warned about alarming levels of hunger in seven countries that could tip into famine next year without assistance. They are Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. Two weeks ago, the U.N. released $100 million from an emergency fund in a bid to prevent further deterioration.
But dozens of other countries are facing extreme challenges and require increased support.
Lowcock said that for the first time since the 1990s, global levels of extreme poverty will rise, threatening to reverse decades of progress.
"Unless there is support for the poorest countries, their hangover from the pandemic is going to be long and harsh, and it will bring with it chaos and anarchy," he said.
Lowcock said this is not in the interest of wealthier countries. And while $35 billion may sound like a lot of money, the world's richest nations have pumped trillions of dollars into their economies to keep their societies afloat.
"As we approach the end of a difficult year, we face a choice as a global community: Are we going to let this pandemic unravel decades of progress, or are we going to act now to do something about it?" he asked.
This year, U.N. humanitarian programs have reached nearly 100 million people in 25 countries. In its 2020 humanitarian appeal, which was revised to include funding for the COVID-19 response, the U.N. asked donors for $39 billion. As of the end of November, it had received $22 billion, leaving some programs severely underfunded.