Two striking stories, back to back, come our way as spring arrives. I cannot get either out of my mind—for what they say, for what they imply about everyone unmentioned in them, for what they do not say.
On March 10, Stephen O’Brien stood up at the UN Secretariat in Manhattan to announce that 20 million people in four countries—three in Africa, the other next door—are about to starve. A multiple of this number urgently need assistance to survive. O’Brien is the UN’s director of humanitarian affairs. Home from inspections in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria, his descriptions of famine conditions in each were—what can one say?—altering of one’s idea of the world we live in:
- In Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, 18.8 million people require immediate aid. That is two-thirds of the population. For 7 million–plus of these, starvation is imminent. I need to repeat that: A plane ride away from wherever you are, more than 7 million people are dying of hunger.
- In South Sudan—and what a birth for the world’s newest nation—more than 7.5 million people are at risk, a 22 percent increase in a year; 1 million–plus of these are acutely malnourished children.
- Somalia: More than half the country, 6.2 million people, needs aid; roughly half of that number face famine.
- O’Brien offered no numbers on Nigeria, who knows why, but I have it directly that UNICEF counts almost 1.4 million children “at imminent risk of death.” Widespread famine looms; Boko Haram, active in the northeast, has forced more than 2 million people from their villages. Homes, crops, schools, fresh water: all of it left behind.
Last month, António Guterres, the UN’s new secretary general, said the organization needed $5.6 billion by the end of March just for Band-Aids—to alleviate the suffering, never mind the underlying causes. As he spoke, the UN had not quite 2 percent of that on hand—$110 million or so. On Thursday, Guterres reported progress: With eight days to go, he is now only $4.4 billion short.
Here is the official summary of O’Brien Security Council briefing. Three days after he delivered it came the second story: The Congressional Budget Office reported that the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Congress will deprive 24 million people of health insurance of any kind over the next decade, if their plan to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act remains intact as presented. Fourteen million of those will be off the rolls next year.
It has been remarkable to note public responses to these reports. Plenty has been said and written about soon-to-be-uninsured Americans, as plenty should be. I question how many of us intend to do anything about it, and I will return to this point in a sec. When the extent of the breathtaking humanitarian crisis was breaking last month, The New York Times published a curtain-raiser on it, and good for the Times. After O’Brien’s stunning presentation, I think I heard a pin drop on First Avenue just north of the Secretariat.