Ebola: Preventing a lethal food legacy
The World Food Programme warns that 1.4 million people could become malnourished because of Ebola. We must act quickly to avoid catastrophe
Feb 24 2015
The Ebola outbreak did what outbreaks do: affected movement. People were afraid of the virus and governments made concerted efforts to contain Ebola’s spread. In doing so, food-producing parts of the countries found themselves isolated from urban cash economies.
Traders willing to maintain trading routes, or with sufficient stock, often hiked prices to capitalise on the increase in demand as people panic-bought. Stocks decreased, prices rose and the purchasing power of people decreased as income-generating activities were affected by the outbreak.
The resilience of communities and national and international aid efforts helped to mitigate the effects of these shocks, but only temporarily. There is growing evidence that the number of food-insecure people in these countries is rapidly increasing.
In October 2014, a report released by Action Against Hunger and the University of Naples Federico II estimated that Ebola could make up to 700,000 additional people undernourished across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Recent estimates by the World Food Programme suggest that the number of people who could become food-insecure by March 2015 could be as high as 3 million, 1.4 million because of the effect of Ebola. If WFP’s estimates prove correct, Ebola will have doubled the number of food-insecure people in these three countries.
As new Ebola cases start to decrease – along with much of the media attention – the wider and longer-term implications for the people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are becoming increasingly clear. And the picture that is emerging is troubling.
The World Bank estimates that the final economic toll from the epidemic will be over $30 billion by the end of 2015, an amount three times larger than the combined GDP of these three countries in 2013. The inability of Ebola-affected countries to single-handedly absorb the economic costs has led to high-level requests to the International Monetary Fund to cancel their debt. While the world debates the viability of that, the challenges for the average citizen are more stark: how to put food on the table.
Agriculture accounts for more than half of the GDP of Sierra Leone and Liberia, and at least a quarter of Guinea’s. In spite of some success in improving food security over the last decade, the challenges before the outbreak were significant. For example, in Sierra Leone in 2011 45% (2.5 million people) were classified as food-insecure during the lean season. Prior to the outbreak food security may have been gradually improving, but it remained tenuous. If the international community is serious in its commitment to address this, the time for action is now.
We need to acknowledge the means by which people have managed to get by throughout this outbreak, and to complement them with measures that improve supply and demand. The first task must be to ensure that food is available in remote areas and those that were quarantined. Action is needed to help families and farmers to grow and harvest food. Reinvigorating trading and commerce must also be prioritised by guaranteeing traders a demand for their products.
While many households will have retained purchasing power, vulnerable families should be given cash or vouchers that can be used to purchase food. These can be provided as emergency support or as part of income-generating schemes that can get local economies moving again. An example would be a road-building project that employs local people.
We need to recognise that getting people back on track will not necessarily happen on its own, and that investment is urgently needed. The international community can learn from the mistakes and delays of the outbreak response by taking action before these tell-tale signs of need lead to a nutrition crisis.
* This blog first appeared on the Guardian Development Professionals Network on 23 February 2015.
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