Liberia’s Ebola Famine

Hunger was already an issue before Ebola struck West Africa. Now, several reports predict the coming months could be devastating.

With the World Health Organization’s report of decreases in Liberia’s Ebola cases has come a deep sigh of relief from the international community. Increased awareness among West Africans combined with millions of dollars of relief aid appear to be slowing down Ebola, with the number of total cases hovering around 14,000.

But as one deadly malady loses steam, another may be exploding: hunger.

Much like the Ebola epidemic itself, a shortage of food is a problem that’s been getting worse for months in the countries hardest hit by Ebola. There are 1.7 million people experiencing food insecurity (defined by WHO as lack of “sufficient, safe, nutritious food [required] to maintain a healthy and active life”) in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—and 200,000 of those cases are directly related to Ebola, according to the World Food Program (PDF). By March, there could be as many as 1.4 million people hungry due to Ebola—the majority of them in Liberia, the region’s worst-hit country.

In Liberia, a nation still struggling to rebuild from years of war when Ebola overtook it, the lack of food has reached dire levels. On Tuesday, Mercy Corps published (PDF) a shocking finding: 90 percent of Liberian households are reducing the amount of food they eat at each meal, and 85 percent are actually eating fewer meals than they were before the health crisis. In a country where food was already scarce, slimmed-down portions could be the difference between life and death. A vendor in Monrovia told Mercy Corps investigators that she and her eight children can no longer afford to eat 10 cups of rice a day. They’ve cut rations down to eight.

Simultaneously on Tuesday, the UN Human Rights campaign released a statement warning that West Africa may be “on the brink of a major food crisis” due to Ebola. “While the countries hardest hit by the Ebola crisis struggle to contain the devastating virus, they now face a new challenge,” said Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. “Experts [predict] that over a million people in the region need food aid to allay shortages.”

After 14 years of civil war, which ended in 2003, Liberia was left with little infrastructure, agriculture, and only the whimper of an economy. Despite this, the country appeared to be slowly rebuilding over the past decade, and although it remained firmly at the bottom of development lists, there were positive signs: The population living below poverty levels dropped and the economy grew. There were rising export numbers, education programs, and maternal health efforts.

In January, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addressed the country optimistically. “Coming from where we were—a broken, destroyed, and nearly incapacitated country—we have made marked progress in economic revitalization and the restoration of basic social services as part of the governance pact with the Liberian people,” she said.

Even so, the situation was dire, particularly when it came to hunger. One in five households struggled with food insecurity, and a third of the country’s children were chronically malnourished.

Existing food shortages in the country were immediately exacerbated by the introduction of Ebola, for a variety of reasons. The first, and arguably most far-reaching, is the area’s reliance on agriculture. Two-thirds of the 22 million people in West Africa depend on farming to live. As the deadly virus swept through the region, entire families of farmers and harvesters were wiped out. Those that survived became fearful they were next and abandoned their farms, resulting in rice and cocoa harvests well below average. The areas that were once the most food stable flipped on their heads when Ebola arrived, and are now the least.

Harvests of rice have already plummeted between 10 and 50 percent, depending on the location, according to the Mercy Corps report (PDF). A female farmer in Foya, one of the worst-hit regions, told Donaig Ledu, a World Food Program officer, that she had to plant her rice late. She lived down the road from the Ebola treatment center and for weeks had watched as cars and people carried dead bodies to and from the center. Fearful, she stayed indoors. Now, she was handpicking a crop that was much lighter than previous years.

The farmers in the area told Ledu that what normally fed them for one year would barely stretch for the next few months. “What they were saying is that this is going to last for two, three, maybe five months time, and then we will not have anything left.”

Emmanuel Boyah, a Liberian primary health care manager with the International Rescue Committee, is witnessing as people scramble for food. “The outbreak came during the peak of farming season in Lofa County and many of the people were not able to complete their farming activities. Family members who were the bread winners got killed by Ebola and there was no one else to continue with the farming works,” he tells The Daily Beast. "Because of this, many families are now going with hunger due to lack of foods.” The WFP began delivering food about two months ago, but thus far is only targeting the most highly-affected villages, leaving others to fend for themselves.

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Beyond the farms themselves, fear of contracting Ebola infiltrated the traders’ community that delivers food to local markets daily. Without it, some local markets were forced to close, putting even more people out of work and further hampering their ability to feed their families. “I’m very concerned about having enough food every day,” Sheku Conteh, a Sierra Leonean street trader told an NGO in late October. “I’m having difficulty providing food for my family. I have to starve myself much of each day just to save a bit from my sales to get food for my family.”

In Liberia, a government decree in August shut down the crossings from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast, hitting the border towns particularly hard. Instead of overland imports, all incoming shipments now route through the ports, which are ill-equipped to bring in large amounts of supplies quickly. Prices are skyrocketing—rice, the country’s main staple, is up 25 to 35 percent (PDF). Meanwhile, civilians are seeing their income fall—between 20 and 50 percent—and vendors are watching sales drop by half.

But of all the obstacles this epidemic has posed to finding food, it is mandatory quarantines that may have caused the most damage. The weight of this has been felt most acutely thus far in the impoverished seaside slum of West Point, near Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia. Fenced off from the rest of the country by the local military, more than 75,000 inhabitants were left with little food to eat and no way to get it. Deliveries of food supplies by the government, a typical response to quarantines, were delayed and often enough only for a small portion of the population—resulting in a violent uprising that left two injured and one dead.

Thousands of people in mandatory quarantines across West Africa are similarly struggling to find alternate sources of food, often without success. Fanta Kamara, a 20-year-old in Mashaka, Sierra Leone, who lost her fiancé to Ebola, told al Jazeera America on Wednesday that the food delivered to her in quarantine had already run out. In late October, 43 residents of a town called Jenewonda in Liberia said they had no food supplies and threatened to break out of quarantine unless aid was delivered.

“In situations where governments have imposed quarantine on communities or requested for self-quarantine, access to food should be strictly ensured,” the UN’s Elver urged on Tuesday. The lack of food can also domino effect into peace and security—already there have been reports about stolen food aid. On Monday, in a town called Karnplay, a local representative accused the mayor of illegally taking a huge quantity of bulgur wheat meant for distribution. In a country where stability is still fragile and requires careful tending, Ebola is a wrecking ball.

Before the Ebola epidemic began, the three countries most affected were looking at already devastating estimates of 5 million malnourished citizens by 2015. Now, according to a recent World Food Program report (PDF), the estimate has risen to a worst-case scenario of 5.7 million.

“When there’s an earthquake or tsunami, it hits and damage done—from there you can assess the situation,” Ledu, the WFP officer, says. “It’s totally different in an outbreak like this and, actually, totally unprecedented for whole humanitarian community.”