The Ebola virus, which has killed more than 2,830 Liberians and collapsed the country’s health-care system, is also attacking Liberia’s food supply, bringing intermittent hunger to a wide swath of this country even as its 4.1 million people try to survive the epidemic.
The typical family income, already among the lowest in the world, has declined as the epidemic raged in recent months, shutting workplaces and killing breadwinners. Closed borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast have sharply reduced trade. Markets in villages and towns across the country have been shut down to limit large gatherings, which can abet transmission of the virus.
The planting and harvesting seasons were disrupted when Ebola hit the farm belt in June.
“We need assistance. We need food here in Foya,” said Joseph Gbellie, commissioner for this rural, largely agricultural district in Liberia’s northwest. “If we don’t get help, it’ll be serious, I tell you.”
In a nation already burdened by widespread poverty and unemployment, 90 percent of families have reduced the amount of food consumed at each meal and 85 percent are eating fewer meals, according to a survey by Mercy Corps, a Portland, Ore., nonprofit group.
In a separate assessment released Monday, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) reported that “food insecurity” now affects all areas of the country. The U.S. Agency for International Development says Ebola-affected communities are at Stage 3 on its five-point scale, with 5 signifying famine and 1 indicating minimal problems obtaining food.
Mary Wargbo, one of many subsistence farmers in this area of Lofa County, has seen the problem firsthand. Last week, she and her two children were harvesting the family’s small rice crop in the oppressive midday heat, weeks later than they do in normal years. They picked the crop by hand, cut the stems with small curved knives and tied the plants into small bundles. They will consume it all, and this year, in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, it is insufficient.