More than 5 million people in Africa's conflict-ravaged Sahel region are facing hunger, the U.N. World Food Programme said Thursday, just as the novel coronavirus is spreading into affected countries.
In a statement, the WFP called the situation in Sahel nations Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger "extremely worrying," and warned that the humanitarian crisis is "spiraling out of control."
The three countries are among the poorest in the world and all are struggling to contain extremist insurgencies that have killed thousands of people.
There are also fears that their fragile healthcare systems and endemic conflict puts them at particular risk of coronavirus outbreaks.
"Our message to the world is clear – look away now and the consequences will be no less than catastrophic," said Chris Nikoi, WFP's West Africa director.
According to the WFP, rising food insecurity Burkina Faso is particularly severe.
Some 2.1 million people will face food insecurity in the West African state by June, it said, up from over 680,000 at the same time last year.
Burkina Faso has recorded 288 confirmed coronavirus cases to date, according to an AFP tally, 16 of which have been fatal.
Neighboring Mali and Niger are in a similar predicament. Some 1.3 million people are facing hunger in conflict-ridden Mali, as well as some 2 million people in Niger.
The WFP said it needed $208 million (192 million euros) through August to continue food aid, with the number of people driven from their homes by conflict in the Sahel growing.
It also warned that displaced people "now rely almost entirely on external assistance to survive".
Mali has recorded 31 coronavirus cases, according to an AFP tally, while Niger has recorded 74.
The Sahel has long been one of the most vulnerable regions in Africa. The surge in armed violence across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is having a devastating impact on children's survival, education, protection and development.
The conflict has forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes, according to UNICEF.