Ebola: More Than a Health Crisis

By Penny Anderson, Mercy Corps Country Director, Liberia & Kedar Mankad, Policy Officer Agriculture & Inclusive Growth, ONE

“Ebola is not just a health crisis. Across West Africa a generation of young people risk[s] being lost to an economic catastrophe.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

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Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

The Ebola outbreak is wreaking havoc on the economies of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. 1 million more people could be food insecure in West Africa from Ebola by March, according to the World Food Program (WFP). Though we see and hear almost daily that the Ebola outbreak is a global public health crisis, what we don’t often read about is the crippling impact of this crisis on the economic and food security of families in West Africa.

West Africa was experiencing a period of strong economic growth prior to the Ebola crisis. According to the World Bank, Liberia was projected at 5.9 percent growth in 2014, with Sierra Leone at 11.3 percent, and Guinea at 4.5 percent. Compared to the US projection of 2.8 percent, these are massive numbers.

Unfortunately, the Ebola crisis has, unless we take action, halted this rise, with conservative estimated financial losses by the World Bank at $3.8 billion for 2014-15, and even showing Guinea and Sierra Leone’s economies shrinking.

Though the situation is constantly evolving, the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, along with WFP and others are estimating that if no improvements are made and the economy continues to experience production decreases; food insecurity will significantly increase by April/May 2015.

Why has a health crisis pushed so many people into hunger, and how can we prevent these catastrophic consequences?

Mercy Corps recently conducted an on-the-ground assessment of the toll the outbreak was having on food security and the economy in Liberia, which yields important insights for potential responses at the international and national levels.

The assessment, conducted in Liberia in early October in key counties where Ebola has already struck and where cases were rising, showed that household food security has been put under intense pressure by a number of factors:

Supply is low. Fewer local markets are open, and less food is available at those markets, specifically those which have relied on cross-border trade. The non-locally produced goods that once may have come from Guinea or Sierra Leone now flow through Monrovia, and therefore are subject to longer transport routes.

Transport is constrained. Longer transportation times due to checkpoints, a lack of cross-border trade, curfew hours, and fewer commercial trucks on the road due to restrictions have led to increased spoilage rates and lower quantity of goods reaching end markets.

Labor has been disrupted. Traditional labor systems in Liberia involve groups as large as 50 people helping to complete agricultural work. To comply with restrictions on gathering large groups, the number of participants per group declined during the height of the outbreak, which affected yields. In addition, wage labor, a source of income for many Liberians, has also diminished, leading to lower incomes among vulnerable populations.

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Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

Vulnerable households and families have started to reduce the amount of food being eaten. 85 percent of households said they were eating fewer meals and 90 percent said they were buying lower quality or less expensive food. This crisis is impacting people’s nutrition, as well as their savings, and may jeopardize their future ability to recover.

One seller at a local market in Monrovia, which is suffering as a result of the constraints, said: “Before Ebola, I sold maybe 10 to 15 bags of peppers per day. Now I sell maybe two to three bags. I have eight children, but we’ve had to reduce the amount of rice we eat from 10 cups per day to eight.”
There are several actions that can be taken to minimize the socio-economic impacts of the crisis, prevent a food security crisis and lay the foundations for early recovery.

In Monrovia, Liberia

– Open borders or negotiate an economic corridor to allow essential goods to cross from neighboring countries – in keeping with public health regulations.
– Ease transport restrictions for commercial vehicles and create a permit system for the allowance of essential cross-border goods (food and medicine) so that traders’ goods can get to market in a regular, timely and cost-effective manner.

The international community

– Increase and ensure commitments – both cash and appropriately trained health personnel to Ebola relief and recovery efforts, are delivered quickly. ONE’s interactive Ebola Response Tracker monitors what key countries have promised.
– Alleviate short-term hunger by bolstering social-protection programs such as targeted and well-monitored cash transfers for people to buy what they need.
– Keep farmers producing by assisting them in accessing agricultural inputs such as seeds, tools and labor.
– Invest in getting the facts through comprehensive on-the-ground assessment and monitoring of markets, food prices and other constraints to food systems.
– Understand the responsibility to learn from this crisis by investing in learning and capacity-building throughout the response. Capture and share important lessons and support local leadership at every level of the response.

Food insecurity and malnutrition is a huge added cost to the Ebola outbreak. It means that on top of the risk of death from the disease, there is potential to increase the cycle of poverty that stems from women and children being malnourished.

What the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has highlighted is a systems crisis. This is the failure of health, governance and humanitarian systems to mitigate the threat of a disease from disrupting the social and economic order of communities and multiple countries. In order to prevent a similar situation in the future, we must better understand the linkages between these systems – and help citizens build their resilience in the face of crises.

Take action NOW and sign our petition asking world leaders to deliver bold commitments to help end the Ebola epidemic now.