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Ebola Has Created a Full-Fledged Food Crisis in Liberia

In Ebola's epicenter in West Africa, the virus's spread has upset the sale and distribution of food resources for millions. We spoke to the World Food Programme about the current state of food insecurity, the Jenewonda crisis, and the ways that we can...

by Hilary Pollack
Oct 24 2014, 8:10pm

Photo via United Nations Development Programme

Earlier this month, we examined how the current Ebola crisis in West Africa—which has now spanned for more than half a year—could escalate into a full-blown food security emergency, with shortages, hunger, and rapidly rising prices of crucial resources. If anything, the oft-fatal disease's media presence has only escalated in the three weeks since then, with domestic coverage primarily centered around the handful of Americans who have contracted it or been exposed to it, and whether or not they've put others at risk through an errant cough or a sneeze in public. A single doctor infected in New York City has been ground zero for the most recent headline frenzy.

But at the crisis's epicenter in West Africa—specifically Liberia, Sierre Leone, and Guinea—many of the growing side effects of the pandemic are resonating outside of just the ill. Recently, the repercussions of food security have increased significantly. Concern reached a critical apex Thursday when 43 people currently under quarantine in the impoverished Liberian town of Jenewonda threatened to leave their state of isolation in search of food if they did not receive immediate relief.

At the front of the lines is the World Food Programme, which is currently scaling up its efforts in hopes of assisting at least one million people who have been impacted by the Ebola outbreak. We got in touch with Alexis Masciarelli, the WFP's Regional Spokesperson for West Africa, for an update on the progression of the food crisis, the Jenewonda situation, and the ways that we can all help from home.

MUNCHIES: We last spoke with the WFP at the very beginning of October. What developments have taken place in the last three weeks? Alexis Masciarelli: We obviously have been stepping up our operation because the crisis has been growing. As of the start of this week, we have distributed food assistance to nearly 800,000 people since we started our operation in April, both in urban and rural areas. Sometimes, we're going house to house, especially in areas that have been put under quarantine. The operation has been growing for us on the food distribution side, but also because we have been providing support to our partners on the medical side: doctors, nurses, and medical equipment to all of the areas that have been affected.

Photo courtesy of WFP/Djaounsede Pardon Madjiangar

On the ground, would you say that the food situation has significantly worsened this past month? You just have to look at the numbers, which are increasing. The international response has grown a lot in the last two weeks. What we're looking at now is the impact of Ebola on the ability of families to feed themselves. We think Ebola is actively disrupting food trade and markets across the three most affected countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and in neighboring countries because food is not circulating there as much as it was before. Trade is on hold, unable to move, and farmers are suffering as well.

But the more important thing is that a lot of people have lost their jobs. Factories, mines, plantations, and schools have closed, so that means that a lot of people have lost a lot of their purchasing power and that affects their ability to put food on the table, and particularly the foods that they want to put on the table. They've had to change their diets in some cases, or instead of eating three meals a day, they're cutting down to two or even one meal(s) per day.

At the moment, our response is to provide immediate food relief to people who are directly affected by the disease—people who have been put under quarantine or are isolated—but we are looking at what could be a longer-term response if farmers are not able to harvest, or if the next planting season is affected. They're lacking manpower on the farms, so we are monitoring that and looking at whether we still have to increase our response in the next few months.

Where are you right now? I'm in Senegal, the original headquarters for the WFP.

I understand that some people quarantined in Jenewonda have been threatening to come out of isolation because of food shortages. Do you have more details on that? That developed fairly quickly, in fact. It was about 40 people, and when the WFP heard that they needed assistance it was on the radio. When we heard, we immediately organized a mission to bring food to these quarantined people. The food was transported from the capital—Monrovia—last night, and today it should make it to our local partners, who are in charge of distributing to that community.

If you look at it globally, we've provided food to more than 700,000 people, and this is a group of just 40 people. It's a very small community. But it's something that we've been fiercely looking at, quarantined people, because they can't move around. We're working very closely with the government, which imposes the quarantine situation, so that we know when and where the quarantines are going to happen, and then we come with the food assistance for these people so that they can be with their families during that time.

Photo courtesy of WFP/Djaounsede Pardon Madjiangar

What lasting repercussions do you see from the Ebola crisis in terms of West Africa's food supply? It's difficult to say because we haven't yet reached the peak of this crisis. At the moment, the efforts are really to try to contain the virus, and that's where all the effort is—on the medical response and trying to prevent the spread. How long it will last, how much impact it will have, is something we're still working on. We are collecting information from the rural areas and urban areas to see how people are coping, how much they're affected, and how much their livelihood has been affected, as well as how it has impacted their ability to buy food. We know that there's a direct link between the spread of Ebola and food security, and the areas that are most affected by [the virus] are experiencing the consequences more. It might take time before people are able to feed themselves properly. But in terms of how long it will last, it's too early to say at this time.

Do you think it will get much worse before it gets better? That's the assumption. That's also why we have to make sure that we manage to curb the spread of that virus. Really, you look at the increase of the whole international community and we're all working in the same direction. We're all in the same position, because it's been identified as the worst modern health crisis. It's not something that we can put aside. How long it will last depends on everyone's determination and kinship.

Photo courtesy of WFP/Djaounsede Pardon Madjiangar

How can Americans help? Unfortunately, money is always an issue. We've only received about a third of the money we need. We've requested funds of about $180 million and we've received less than $70 million, so this continues to be a concern. With the proper partners, it's crucial to fund this operation and not give up on the medical operation as well. [The problem] is increasing, but we're building new medical structures for people who are sick, and we need more medical personnel. We're keeping our eyes on the ground, but we have people coming from all over the world to work on our increased response.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Donate to the World Food Programme here.

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