Liberia has been the hardest hit country in West Africa’s Ebola outbreak with more than three-thousand cases. Fourteen of the country’s fifteen counties have been affected. Some of the first cases in Liberia were reported in northern Lofa County. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said the outbreak has had a big effect on food security there.
The FAO has just completed a four-day assessment of Lofa County, where a three-man team visited the towns of Foya and Barkedu. The far northern area is close to the border with Guinea. That’s where the World Health Organization reports the Ebola outbreak probably began last December with the case of a two year old boy.
FAO representative Alexis Bonte said that Lofa County residents are “terrified at how fast the disease is spreading.” He says that “neighbors, friends and family members are dying within just a few days of exhibiting shocking symptoms.”
They often don’t understand what’s happening and blame the symptoms on bad water or food. And they’re too afraid to work the fields.
Bonte, who was part of the assessment team in Lofa, said, “It’s an area where you had a lot of traffic coming from the other countries -- and specifically for Barkedu, a city where MSF told me that 100-percent of the population has been in contact with an affected person.”
MSF is the French acronym for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders.
Bonte said people were not able to get food at many markets in Lofa County, where food production had fallen from 10 to 25 percent depending on the area.
“All the markets had been closed by the local authorities with good reason to avoid that people will meet and take risk of shaking hands and hugging and so on. So, it’s empty markets with a lot of grass where normally you don’t have grass because people are walking there,” he said.
The food that was available cost much more. The price of fuel rose sharply, too.
The FAO assessment in northern Liberia found the Ebola outbreak was “washing away years of progress and hard work.” The disease brought livelihoods to a halt, so any savings local residents had were quickly depleted.
For example, many women were not able to repay their loans used to start small farming-related businesses. What’s more, the FAO reports women have borne the brunt of the disease “in terms of infections and deaths” They are on the “frontline” providing care to relatives at home and in health clinics.
What’s happening in Lofa County today could impact food security next year. The FAO said residents need immediate assistance, including rice and vegetable seeds and cash transfers.”
However, he said there is some good news. In the crossroads town of Voinjama – which serves as the county capital – authorities have approved the first weekly markets.
“So now we go back to a normal kind of life and maybe the trade and the markets will reopen progressively. And that will facilitate the movement of cash and also for the women to make sure they can buy and sell the food for their families,” he said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization will enlist the help of Liberian women’s associations to try to restart the local economies. The groups will be offered financial agreements to help raise awareness about Ebola and manage food and seed production.
Bonte said, “So the income that they will earn through these financial agreements will be used first to cover basic needs – the food, health, etc. But also will be invested to replenish the capital of their savings and loan schemes.”
Bonte said one of the biggest challenges will be to convince donors that ensuring food security is a major part of the fight against Ebola. He added there will be no good health without food security.
The World Health Organization said “the true number” of Ebola deaths in Liberia will likely never be known. For example, it says the bodies of many who have died from the disease in the very poor West Pointe area of Monrovia have been thrown into two nearby rivers.
The WHO also warns that the number of malaria deaths this year in Liberia may soon surpass Ebola. It said stocks of anti-malarial bednets and medicines have been depleted.
To end on a more positive note, the new 120-bed Island Clinic has opened with the support of the WHO, UNICEF, the World Food Program and USAID. And soon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opens a new diagnostic lab. It would be able to confirm a case of Ebola within four hours of taking a blood sample.