The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is scaling up its emergency response in Ebola-hit nations of West Africa – most notably Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In this interview, WFP Regional Director for West Africa Denise Brown, who has just come back from the front lines of the operation, describes the situation in the field.
Q: You’ve been to Liberia. How does it look on the ground?
A: I think it is worse on the inside than we see from the outside. The World Health Organization (WHO) said it believes the number of cases are underestimated. That’s our impression too, particularly in Monrovia.
Q: What kind of challenges are you facing as a humanitarian organization?
A: At a hospital or treatment centre, it is fine. We hand the food rations to our medical partners, and they take care of it. But outside that scenario, it's difficult. At this scale, with entire communities under quarantine, there are different steps you have to take. First of all, we must make sure that we mitigate the risk for our staff. Then, we don’t want to do distributions for 10,000 people. The more people you have, the more risk there is of spreading the virus. We want small groups. But lots of small groups become hard to manage. It means lots of communication.
Also, it’s difficult because we are designing the programme as we go. We’ve jumped straight in and we are running hard to contain the spread of the virus. But we are still learning to run as we go.
Q: What is the impact of the travel restrictions put in place by neighbouring countries?
A: It is challenging our work. We need a reliable way of transporting the humanitarian staff into those countries, and we are working with governments to see what assurances can be put in place. If we can’t get in with supplies, with transport, with logisticians…then containing the outbreak will be very difficult.
Q: WFP has been present since the beginning of the crisis. What has it done so far?
A: Yes, in Guinea we started at least four months ago. In Liberia, a month ago and in Sierra Leone, a couple of weeks ago. These countries were on board already with food distributions, but now it’s much more. We sent in about 50 extra staff and logisticians because this is about moving food in, moving food out, making sure we know where quarantined areas will come up, and trying to pre-position food. We aim to reach about 1.3 million people who are in these quarantined areas and in hospitals.
Q: We know that the Ebola outbreak has an impact on the economy. What is its impact on food security?
There are issues of access to food and we are making sure that people have their basic needs during the quarantined period. We’re just at the beginning, to be frank. The prices of basic commodities are rising. We’ve done a preliminary analysis that shows a 30 percent increase for cassava and imported rice in Monrovia. When they did the graphs showing the peaks in the Ebola outbreak and the peaks in the market prices…they are following each other very closely.
But the other part of this is the disruption in agricultural production. We know from our contacts with farmers that planting has been disrupted. In the UN system, WFP and the Food and Agricultural Organization are responsible for doing crop and food supply assessments, which give us a much better understanding at the macro level about what is happening to markets and crop production. So there are immediate, acute needs and then what looks like concentric circles just building around that epicentre with different kinds of crises which need to be managed.
Q: How much money is it going to take to service the 1.3 million people?
A: The cost of the regional emergency operation is USD 70 million, for 1.3 million people, for three months. But WHO is saying that it will be about 6-8 months before the outbreak is contained, so we will be extending our operations. We are doing this but we have no confirmed contribution. We are using stocks that we had on hand from other programs. We're saying to donors: "We have rice in this country for this – and we would like to use it for that [the Ebola response - ed]." We have food stocks pre-positioned in the region, but we need money to transport them. So we are in contact with the donor community to get the support for an increased response. But you need to put this into a broader context: I don’t think the world has ever seen so many concurrent crises on such a huge scale. The humanitarian community is stretched beyond belief.