The United Nations warned the coronavirus pandemic could trigger famine as the worldwide freeze on commerce sent shock waves through financial markets.

The bleak warning came on Tuesday as deaths from the virus surpassed 174,000 worldwide, with governments anxiously trying to chart a path out of the unprecedented global health and economic emergency.

One World Food Programme director warned ‘widespread famines of biblical proportions’ could force millions in already vulnerable countries into starvation due to the global crisis.

The economic impact of the pandemic could lead to a ‘humanitarian catastrophe,’ with the number of people suffering from acute hunger projected to nearly double to 265 million this year, the UN’s World Food Programme warned. 

Debates are raging worldwide over when and how to relax lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Many leaders fear triggering another wave of infections but are also worried about the mounting economic costs and signs of social tension.

‘We are on the brink of a hunger pandemic,’ WFP director David Beasley told the UN Security Council in a video conference.

‘Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.’

The worst-case scenario could see famine in some three dozen countries, Beasley said.

As the WFP warned of potential famine, Group of 20 agriculture ministers pledged to ensure ‘sufficient’ global food supplies for ‘the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people.’

Freezes on whole sectors of commerce are already playing out dramatically on oil markets, where prices have crashed due to the drop-off in energy demand and a supply glut.

Before the pandemic crisis, Beasley was appealing to donor countries to increase food relief funding to the poorest countries, because war and natural disaster were putting severe strain on food systems.

In East Africa 70 million people were out at risk of starvation after locust swarms torn through crops earlier this year. 

He told the Guardian: ‘I was already saying that 2020 would be the worst year since the Second World War, on the basis of what we forecast at the end of last year.

‘Now, my goodness, this [the virus] is a perfect storm…[it has] taken us to uncharted territory. We are looking at widespread famines of biblical proportions.’ 

The United States is now the hardest-hit country with more than 43,000 people dead and 784,000 infected.

As the economic downturn starts to bite, President Donald Trump announced the US would temporarily halt immigration to the country, claiming it would save American jobs – some 22 million of which have vanished in the wake of virus shutdowns.

The vague threat was scant on details but suggested a hardening of his anti-immigration crusade, a move likely to delight supporters ahead of November elections.

‘In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!’ he tweeted.

The White House did not provide any further details Tuesday about the measure or how long it would last.

In hard-hit Europe, some countries are cautiously creeping out from confinement, though large gatherings appear to be out of the question for the forseeable future.

While Germany is allowing small shops to reopen, authorities cancelled Oktoberfest, a beloved beer-swilling festival in southern Bavaria, for the first time since World War II.

Spain announced it was scrapping its annual bull-running festival in Pamplona.

In one week though, children in Spain, who have been house-bound for over a month under a tight lockdown, will be allowed to accompany parents on food shopping and other sanctioned outings.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has also promised to soon unveil a plan to start reopening the hard-hit country.

But in a sign of what lies ahead, the gradual awakening of Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus first emerged, remains tinged with fear about fresh outbreaks of the disease.

The industrial city was released from quarantine two weeks ago, but many restaurants, for instance, have not reopened or are still only able to offer outdoor seating and takeout.

‘We have very, very few customers,’ said Han, the 27-year-old owner of a soy drink stall.

‘Everyone is worried about asymptomatic infected people,’ she said. ‘Business is just not as good as before.’

Singapore, meanwhile, has become a sober example of how infections may ebb and flow, with the financial hub extending lockdown measures Tuesday as it battles a second wave of contagion.

Elsewhere, there is fear over how the most vulnerable will survive lockdowns that breed their own dangers.

In many parts of the world, including Latin America, weeks of confinement have seen a surge in calls to helplines for victims of domestic abuse.

Eighteen women have been killed by their partner or ex-partners during the first 20 days of Argentina’s mandatory quarantine.

Appeals to helplines have also shot up nearly 40 percent.

‘Every day, a women is abused, raped or beaten at home by her partner or her ex,’ said Ada Rico, from the NGO La Casa del Encuentro.

Misery on the continent will be compounded by a looming economic recession, which a UN body says will spike poverty rates in the worst contraction in a century.

Financial markets continued a roller-coaster ride after the price of a US oil benchmark sunk below zero for the first time on Monday, sending world equities spiralling.

A day after its historic slide into negative territory amid a supply glut, US oil futures finished in positive territory.

But the market remained under heavy pressure due to the oversupply as shutdowns constrain global growth.

Wall Street tumbled for a second straight session on Tuesday as worries about chaos in the oil market overshadowed progress in Washington on additional relief for small businesses.

Stocks did not get a boost from the deal between US lawmakers and the White House on a $480 billion emergency package that replenishes a depleted program to help small businesses devastated by the crisis.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down more than 630 points, or 2.7 percent.

The aviation sector has been hammered particularly hard by the global economic pause, and cash-strapped Virgin Australia announced it had entered voluntary administration – the largest airline so far to collapse.

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