Food Crisis Occurring in Ebola-Affected Areas of West Africa


More than 10,000 deaths from the Ebola virus have been reported, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). International organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have repeatedly warned that the virus has spiraled out of control.

The slow international response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa demonstrated the need for better response systems and collaboration among global organizations.

Current response systems are not only inadequate in stopping the spread of the disease, but also undermine regional food security through broadly applied travel restrictions and quarantines. 

According to a report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, households affected by Ebola face reduced incomes and access to food due to quarantine of income earners. The closing of many border crossings has hampered food trade, and fear of contracting the virus has also limited agricultural activities in some cases, according to the JRC. Els Adams, an outreach nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières in Kambia, says “it was very clear initially that the countries were focused on fighting Ebola only up to the borders. There was little exchange of information and follow-up of contacts across the border. There was low awareness that people could have been infected on the other side, or have contacts there.”

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) monitors the most precarious food security situations globally. FEWS NET publishes special reports on the food security implications of the Ebola virus every two weeks, focusing on Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Findings from the network show improving market functioning, but household incomes remain below average.

This reduces household purchasing power and limits food access for households that are reliant on market purchases to meet basic needs. In Sierra Leone, more than 62 percent of respondents reported reduced wage opportunities compared to normal during a recent FEWS NET survey. The World Food Programme (WFP) is also actively monitoring food security in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia through continuing assessments.

FEWS NET ranks situational food crises according to the state of emergency. A “crisis,” phase 3, means that 20 percent of households can meet their minimal food needs only by selling off livestock or other assets; a “famine,” phase 5, is more dire. According to Christopher Hillbruner, Decisions Support Advisor for FEWS NET,  “there should be urgent response starting at phase 3. If you are waiting for phase 5 to respond, you are always going to be too late.” Hillbruner estimates that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa “could leave an estimated 1.3 million people without enough to eat,” due to the slow response of international aid.

Bill Gates believes that a technology-based action response system is needed to prevent the spread of future pandemics, comparing global arrangements to preparing for a war. According to Gates, the experience in dealing with the Ebola outbreak shows that the world is unprepared for future epidemics, which could be even worse due to airborne transmission mechanisms. “A more difficult pathogen [than Ebola] could come along, a form of flu, a form of SARS or some type of virus that we haven’t seen before,” Gates told the Agence France Press. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, agrees. By “building stronger health systems, improved surveillance and chains of supply and transportation, and fast-acting medical response teams,” Kim believes we can limit the spread of future pandemics.

However, concern is rising over human rights issues associated with the international response systems within Ebola-affected countries. Restriction of movement through broadly applied quarantines can limit access to basic needs such as healthcare for disadvantaged populations, and healthcare workers have not been adequately protected in some cases. Social unrest related to food and water distribution has also led to the use of unwarranted force and violation of the United Nations Code of Conduct.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), social mobilization efforts, such as home-based care, voluntary movement restrictions, and food aid, can be just as effective as more restrictive measures. “As they respond to the Ebola crisis, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone should address ongoing governance challenges by ensuring the transparent use of funds, improving health infrastructure, making the security forces more accountable, and improving communication between government and the population,” said Corinne Dufka, senior researcher at HRW.

At least 22 African countries have the ecological conditions and social behaviors that put them at risk of future outbreaks of Ebola virus disease, according to the WHO. Income support is critical to avoid adding a food crisis to the Ebola health crisis, and reforming response systems could improve household resilience to further shocks. Furthermore, international response systems should work with governments in affected areas to better protect health workers, limit use of quarantines, facilitate transparency, and prevent social unrest.

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