Ebola continues to attack Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on several fronts. While infections and deaths rise, the disease is posing a greater threat to food security. United Nations agencies warned that more than 1 million people could be food insecure by March unless action is taken now.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Program and the governments of the three countries have just surveyed the food security situation. A joint statement, issued Wednesday, calls for "drastically improved access to food" as well as measures to "safeguard" both crop and livestock production.
"Obviously, the most urgent priority of FAO and all of our U.N. partners is to stop the epidemic and the loss of life that’s caused by it," said Alexander Jones, chief of FAO’s donor relations and resource mobilization.
"But we also need to keep in mind that there is a need to reduce the food security impacts of this crisis, which are equally challenging," Jones continued. "This is having both direct and indirect impacts on millions of people in the three main affected countries in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone."
The U.N. agencies said access to food has been blocked by border closings, quarantines, hunting bans and transport restrictions. Livelihoods have been disrupted and food markets have been closed for long periods.
Jones said food harvesting and processing has slowed or stopped in some places.
"These are countries, of course, which have a very large rural agricultural sector," he said. "It’s taking labor force away from these areas. Normally, during harvest and other critical agricultural seasons, there’s a large inflow of population from other areas. And obviously this is not happening with all the quarantines and movement limitations placed on them. So, there’s an absolute lack of labor force in this area."
Farmworkers no longer have the salaries they did prior to the outbreak. Their lack of spending is also contributing to an economic slowdown in the countries.
The FAO’s Jones said farmers who are able to produce some crops are having a tough time selling them.
"So, we’re seeing that prices in production areas are dropping and they’re rising in consumption areas. So, typically, rural areas have less income with which to buy things they need and urban areas are seeing price increases."
Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been forced to import more food – and are not able to export crops to neighboring countries as they have in the past.
The FAO and the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund have donated more than $3 million to food security efforts. But officials said millions more will be needed.
"The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has been a wake-up call for the world," said Denise Brown, WFP emergency response coordinator in Dakar.
To make things better, U.N. agencies are trying to "re-establish the farm system in the three countries," their joint statement said. This includes distribution of seeds and fertilizer, better agricultural methods to help compensate for labor shortages, and cash transfers or vouchers to allow people "to buy food and help stimulate markets."
Meanwhile, Brown added, "while working with partners to make things better, we must be prepared for them to get worse."
The statement said roughly 520,000 people currently face severe food insecurity in the three nations. By March, that number is expected to rise: from 120,000 to 280,000 in Sierra Leone; from 170,000 to nearly 300,000 in Liberia; and from 230,000 to more than 470,000 in Guinea.
Searches in Sierra Leone
Authorities in Sierra Leone on Wednesday began conducting house-to-house searches around the capital, Freetown, to look for hidden Ebola patients.
"Don’t hide the sick" when health workers begin visiting, Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, said in a statement Tuesday.
The searches are aimed at "extracting every sick person" in order to break the chain of transmission for the Ebola virus.
Freetown has become a center of the outbreak, reporting more than 130 new confirmed cases in the first week of December, one-third of the whole country's total.
In another step, Sierra Leone's government has banned all public Christmas celebrations starting December 20 to reduce physical contact among people.
Likewise, Guinea’s government has banned holiday gatherings.
The World Health Organization said Monday that 18,464 cases and 6,841 deaths have been reported in the epidemic overall.
UN Chief to Visit
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to visit the West African nations struggling with the Ebola epidemic.
Ban says he is to visit Guinea, Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone, the countries most affected by the outbreak, as well as Ghana, the site of the U.N. mission for Ebola response.
Wednesday in New York he said he wants a first-hand look at the Ebola response and to show solidarity with those affected by the illness.
The U.N. chief said there has been an outpouring of life-saving contributions from around the world, and the Ebola response strategy is working, but Ebola also continues to drive up food prices, keep children out of school, and stifle business activity.