SANTA MONICA, California — A health crisis is becoming a food crisis as people in quarantined, Ebola-hit regions face drastic food shortages. Although summer is traditionally a lean season in West Africa, Ebola has both exacerbated food shortages and dashed hopes of a good harvest for the coming year.
The first food source to be removed from markets was “bush meat” from local forest animals. Governments banned it because some of the animals, such as apes and fruit bats, could potentially carry Ebola. Other traditional foods became inaccessible as a result of Ebola-fighting measures: mobility of traders decreased due to travel restrictions, markets stopped operating in some quarantine zones and ships carrying staple foods like rice refused to dock in places affected by the epidemic.
Now, there is less food available for sale in West Africa. Prices are skyrocketing. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, the price of both meat and fish has doubled, and rice is up to 50 percent more expensive than in recent years. “People are saying: ‘We’re not afraid of dying from Ebola, we’re starving,’” said Jean-Alexandre Scaglia, a representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Liberia.
The food situation is projected to continue deteriorating because communal farm work arrangements have been disrupted, harming harvest capacity. “The Ebola came in at a time when farmers were ready to go to the field to work together in groups,” said David Mwesigwa, the FAO’s acting representative in Sierra Leone. Because the disease can spread among people in close proximity, all public gatherings have been banned. Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, which has also caused a sudden and acute shortage in farm labor.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme has begun augmenting operations in West Africa to provide food for 1.3 million people affected by the food crisis resulting from the Ebola outbreak. Yet, even air dropping food aid can pose a problem, as starving people are prone to panic and riot. Food systems have been disrupted on several levels, and food aid can only treat surface issues rather than underlying instabilities. Another option is to treat the problem more comprehensively by providing seeds and livestock to help the region’s farmers reestablish their livelihoods.
Aid organizations have been proceeding with caution when it comes to Ebola-hit areas. “The operating environment is already very challenging, and as airlines begin canceling flights and closing borders in West Africa, this is disrupting the response effort,” said Michael Stulman of Catholic Relief Services. “There isn’t reliable and consistent transportation to and from the affected region. It also makes it more difficult to send life-saving supplies and equipment to the affected countries.”
Experts agree that aid organizations should start responding now, even while the Ebola outbreak persists, if the food shortage is to be at all mitigated. But issues with transportation, travel restrictions and fear of contamination suggest that people will be lacking food and resources for the next year or two during a difficult food source rebuilding process.
– Mari LeGagnoux