Ebola Might Leave Survivors Food-Strapped in Liberia

The first diagnosed case of ebola in the United States has sent some people in the West into a panic, but the reality of the virus is still far worse in West Africa, where the outbreak has sent some food prices soaring and potentially endangered...

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Oct 4 2014, 12:02am

Photo courtesy of WFP/Rein Skullerud.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 7,400 people have contracted ebola and more than 3,400 people have died since the West African outbreak began in March. With the recent news of the first diagnosed case in the US, however, some of the media focus has shifted from the outbreak's epicenter, where it has decimated communities and pushed resources to their limits.

But the virus is doing more than just infecting bodies. In Liberia, the outbreak may very well escalate into a food crisis.

At this point, the extent of the crisis is not entirely clear, though the outbreak has caused some food prices to skyrocket. This week, the United Nations announced that it will conduct a rapid assessment of food insecurity issues in Liberia through two of its agencies, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The WFP, along with other local and international organizations, has been overseeing the distribution of food and supplies in the region.

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Dolo Town, Liberia. To avoid contact, family groups are invited to stay separate. Photo courtesy of WFP/Rein Skullerud.

To get a better picture of the situation on the ground, we spoke to Martin Penner, a communications officer for the WFP in Liberia, about what the agency is doing and the hurdles it currently faces.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Martin. What was the food insecurity situation in Liberia before the ebola outbreak? Martin Penner: Liberia imports a lot of food, and that in itself makes a country food insecure to a certain extent. There are [also] areas of serious poverty, where families were spending 75 or 80 percent of their income on food. So there were undoubtedly some issues, but there hasn't really been a food crisis in Liberia since 2008 and 2009 and the high food price crisis.

From a logistical standpoint, how were food deliveries to quarantine areas carried out? There are no longer quarantine areas in Liberia, but there are areas of what we call "widespread and intense transmission" of the ebola virus. We are providing assistance in many of these areas. Most deliveries are by truck. We work with NGO partners, such as the Liberian Red Cross, who help us carry out the food distributions to families in individual communities.

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Monrovia's West Point slum during the quarantine in early August. Photo courtesy of WFP/Rein Skullerud.

What sort of food is being delivered? We are delivering rice, cooking oil, peas or lentils, and we are now adding a nutrient-rich product called SuperCereal. It can be mixed with water and cooked very easily. It makes a sort of mineral and vitamin-rich porridge. We already had some food stocks in Liberia, so we weren't starting from scratch. We have brought in more and we are also looking into the possibility of buying food inside Liberia. At the moment, we're responding to a government request to feed about 400,000 people over a three-month period. We've already reached 100,000 but October will be the month when we really get moving on the food distribution front.

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Collecting food at the distribution point in Monrovia. Photo courtesy of WFP/Rein Skullerud.

In the country as a whole, how has the crisis affected food production? In some rural areas there could be a lack of labor during the upcoming wheat and rice harvests because of workers migrating and farmers getting sick. But we don't know for sure how much impact it will really have on production. That's why WFP and our sister agency, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, are currently doing an assessment mission.

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A recent delivery of SuperCereal. Photo courtesy of Martin Penner.

What does that entail, exactly? We have experts traveling around the country right now talking to people and trying to find out exactly what the food security situation is and what the outlook is, both for rural areas and for the cities. We're going to be collecting some of the data by phone, using "interactive voice response." People hear a recorded message asking them questions about how much food they have, where it comes from, etc., and their answers are recorded. It's one way of reducing the health risks for our investigators.

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Preparing supplies for upcoming food distributions. Photo courtesy of Martin Penner.

Lofa County is the country's grain basket and was hit especially hard by ebola. What does that mean for the rest of the country? We're not sure. We hope to get some answers from the assessment that is going on right now. We should have preliminary results in the second half of this month.

Are certain foods entirely unavailable? No, for the time being, it seems that there are no major gaps on the food markets. But we do know that some prices have gone up. The price of cassava, for example, doubled in Monrovia during August. Some people may be finding it hard to buy all the food they need.

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Food distribution in a Monrovia slum. Photo courtesy of Martin Penner.

What is the outlook in Liberia? The outlook on the food front is unclear, and that's why we're doing this two-week assessment mission. We need to see exactly how much production is affected. WFP's plan for now is to keep assisting people in areas where the virus is spreading fast, providing food alongside the health measures that the government and other organizations are taking.

But it's not just about food. WFP has massive logistics muscle and we are putting that capacity at the service of the entire humanitarian community. For example, our Humanitarian Air Service is transporting aid workers up and down the ebola crisis zone with planes and helicopters. We have also built a logistics hub in Monrovia so that all the aid organizations have somewhere to store their emergency supplies. And we manage a lot of the humanitarian cargo coming through the airport. We need to keep doing all that and scale it all up. Because the global operation underway here is massive. And it has to be, if we are to beat an enemy which is invisible and is everywhere.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Martin. Keep up the good work.

To help support the World Food Programme's efforts in the region, donate here.