FOYA, Liberia — 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.
“It is not enough, but we manage,” she said. “I will buy some. I don’t have money, but I will buy some.”
About 250 miles away, in Dolo’s Town, a poor community of 15,000 people east of the capital city of Monrovia, Bobby Dumbar is at the other end of the food-supply chain, but his circumstances are similar. With his parents killed by Ebola, Dumbar, 28, has become the breadwinner for his 11 siblings, including the 7-month-old girl in his arms.
The family was picking up a month’s worth of rice, cooking oil and other supplies donated by Orphan Aid Liberia, a small nonprofit group based in Cartersville, Ga. Dumbar figured the food would last his family two weeks.
After that, “I go hustle,” he said. By hawking wares on the streets, he predicted, he will bring in less than $1 a day.
There is no evidence of starvation in Liberia, no bloated bellies or emaciated children such as have characterized African famine in the past. Liberians and the aid groups assisting them are determined to prevent that.
The WFP has distributed 6,500 metric tons of food here since August, handing it out along a trail blazed by the virus, to Ebola treatment centers, survivors recovering from the infection and communities hit hard by the epidemic. USAID has spent $20 million to fund the effort so far.
But that is little comfort to Jennneh Korhene, who must feed 10 children. She was collecting a 110-pound bag of bulgur wheat, along with oil and other staples at a WFP distribution for Ebola victims in Kolba City, about an hour from Foya.
“Sometimes, we only depend on God for food,” she said. “Sometimes, there is no food for the next day.”
With a climate and landscape hospitable to farming, Liberia could have a well-developed agricultural sector, said Alghassim Wurie, the WFP’s deputy country director for Liberia. But there is little machinery on the mostly small Liberian farms, and most of the work is done by hand. Few farms are large enough to generate surpluses that could regularly be sold for profit. Liberians also raise very little livestock.
As a result, Liberia imports more than half its food.
Without technology to help them, Liberian farmers work under the kuu system, an informal cooperative labor arrangement. Neighbors gather at one family’s farm to plant, weed or harvest a crop and then move on together to the next farm and the next, until the job is done.
Ebola burst into Foya and the surrounding area of Lofa County in June, at one of the worst possible moments.
“Ebola came at a time when people were about to plant their crops for the season,” Wurie said.
As people began to die, local and federal officials told everyone to stay home. Fearful of gatherings that might spread the virus, they reduced the number of people in each kuu from as many as 50 to as few as five, according to a Mercy Corps assessment. Some abandoned their farms or did not plant.
Timing, critical to the success of the rice crop, was thrown off. Planting was delayed by about three weeks, which set back weeding and other maintenance and postponed the harvest. Now, experts said, the overall yield will decline, and farmers are worried about having enough seed rice for next year.
No one is sure of the total impact. Gbellie and another district commissioner said the harvest could be 50 percent less than normal. A Mercy Corps assessment puts the damage at about 10 percent for upland rice and 25 percent for lowland rice.
Dina Esposito, director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, said, “We are expecting an average to below-average harvest, especially for people directly affected by Ebola.”
In Dolo’s Town, Agnes Bowell, 21, is trying to shepherd her three sisters through the crisis after the death of seven family members, including both parents. But feeding 4-year-old Diane, 15-year-old Mardea and 18-year-old Musu has become a challenge.
“The kids are hungry most of the time, because there is no food,” she said.
Wargbo, the subsistence farmer, said she is happy that trucks carrying the dead in white body bags are no longer a common sight on the road that runs by her rice plot. Since the end of May, 642 people in Lofa County have been infected by Ebola, and 214 have died, the third-largest totals among the country’s 15 counties, according to the Liberian government.
The virus has receded in recent weeks. But Wargbo’s food supply is already damaged.
“Last year was enough, more than this year,” she said. “There should be more.”