A young girl walks with two bags of cold drinking water in Monrovia, Liberia, October 9, 2005.
A young girl walks with two bags of cold drinking water in Monrovia, Liberia, October 9, 2005.
Jonathan Ernst / Courtesy Reuters

Six days a week, women like Kuma Zay sell brightly colored red and green peppers, onions, and other vegetables in Monrovia’s Gobachop Market. Although larger wholesale markets were initially shut down in the wake of the country’s Ebola crisis, Gobachop and other local markets have remained open throughout. Although Zay and the other women fear they will contract the Ebola virus, they are desperate to provide for their families. “Before Ebola, I sold maybe ten to 15 big bags of peppers per day. Now, I sell maybe two to three bags,” says Zay. “I have eight children, but we’ve had to reduce the amount of rice we eat from ten cups per day to eight.”

Liberia is one of three West African nations experiencing the most serious Ebola virus epidemic in history. And of the three, it is the worst hit, with nearly 3,000 dead, nearly 7,000 infected, and tens of thousands more at risk. The economic costs are also astounding. Since Liberia’s protracted civil war ended a decade ago, the country had achieved a measure of economic progress and stability; just prior to the outbreak of the Ebola crisis, Liberia’s economy was growing at a rate of 5.9 percent. A World Bank report shows GDP growth has dropped to 2.5 percent since the outbreak. As Defense Minister Brownie Samukai recently explained, “Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence.”

The bleak economic outlook is compounded in the short term by Ebola containment protocols that are straining food security, market supply chains, and household incomes. To better understand what all this means for the Liberian people—already one of the poorest populations in the world—the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps conducted a rapid market assessment in Lofa and Nimba Counties and parts of Monrovia between October 3 and 13. The research team held 122 household surveys, 122 vendor surveys, 20 focus group discussions, and 65 key informant interviews. The results confirm the seriousness of the problems Liberia now faces.

MAKING DO WITH LESS

In our household surveys, 66 percent of respondents reported a decrease in household income. And even as household purchasing power is dropping, prices are spiking. A recent survey by Premise Data Corporation found that prices for common goods are eight percent higher in Ebola-affected neighborhoods in Monrovia compared with elsewhere in the city. What’s more, transportation restrictions are limiting the availability of goods in local markets. For example, the countrywide state of emergency in effect over the past several months has included restrictions on market days, border closures, curfews, checkpoints, and reductions in the number of passengers allowed in vehicles.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that, like Zay and her family, a full 90 percent of Liberian households report food insecurity. To cope with decreased incomes and rising prices, they are reducing the amount of food eaten at each meal and substituting lower-quality or less expensive food for preferred food. Eighty-five percent of households report eating fewer meals each day. As the Ebola crisis drags on, these economic realities will only continue to worsen.

Proof can be found in the agricultural sector, which has been particularly disrupted by the Ebola crisis and government-imposed restrictions. Rice harvests, for example, are expected to decline slightly over the coming year because of disruptions in the kuu, as local labor systems are known. Traditionally, large groups of farmers exchange labor or pay for work on one another’s land. But the government advised against gatherings of large groups of people. So, rather than the typical kuu of perhaps 50 people, some labor groups were reduced to just five or ten at the height of the crisis in August.

One result is that farm maintenance and fencing fell short of normal standards, which is likely to lead to a decline in upland rice yields of 10 to 25 percent. Planting for lowland rice was similarly affected, potentially leading to a decline in yields of 25 percent. Overall, this year’s rice harvest is expected to hold about steady with last year’s. But much uncertainty exists about next year’s harvest, largely because of the government’s state of emergency, which halted all imports of rice and limited farmers’ engagement in local production.

Today, the Liberian government and international organizations are most heavily focused on containing Ebola, as they should be. The containment policies, however, have created unintended economic consequences that need to be addressed with health experts to avert a potentially critical economic and food security situation for residents.

IS THE WORST STILL TO COME?

Recognizing the pressure the government response to the Ebola crisis was putting on the Liberian people and markets, on November 13, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that she would not seek an extension to the state of emergency imposed in August over Ebola. She reopened weekly markets and promised to relax other restrictions. But that probably won’t be enough to stop Liberia’s economic slide.

For one, curfews and delays at checkpoints, which drive up the cost of transporting goods, remain in place. It remains to be seen how long it will take Liberians to restock their savings and start spending again. Households that depend on agriculture for income should be able to better withstand the coming difficulties, given that they can opt to consume some of their production. But market-dependent households don’t have that option and could well face greater difficulties in the months ahead.

To encourage as quick a recovery as possible, programming aimed at improving local economic health, restoring incomes to normal levels, strengthening the agricultural sector (including ensuring that farmers resume normal planting in 2015), and improving transport conditions is absolutely necessary.

To be sure, containing the spread of the virus remains the priority in Liberia. The country and the international aid community must also work to lessen the economic impact of the Ebola crisis. Indeed, steps can be taken to achieve both of those goals, provided they are done in consultation with health authorities.

First, Liberia and its partners should increase households’ access to food, for example through cash-transfer programming with careful monitoring to ensure that supplies remain available on the market. Second, they will need to boost income-generating activities such as cash-for-work or livelihoods programming for the most vulnerable households. Third, the country will have to invest in transportation infrastructure. Fourth, Liberia should open its land borders and allow commercial vehicles to travel after curfew to avoid delays at checkpoints. These measures will open trade routes and allow food staples and other essentials into Liberia, although they will need to be combined with strict monitoring to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. Fifth, Liberia should work to provide assistance to farmers who need access to essential agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers for the upcoming planting season.

These steps will involve some risk, which must be accounted for. Market monitoring is always critical for cash transfer programming or in-kind distributions, and the delicate balance between supply of goods and demand for those goods can be easily upset. The demand for goods currently falls well short of available supply; however, if significant additional demand is created through humanitarian assistance, any lingering supply constraints could potentially result in price inflation and shortages. Therefore, close monitoring of markets is highly advised so that food is available to meet demand without creating inflationary effects on prices.

For now, Zay will continue to sell peppers in the market just to make sure her family can eat one meal a day. She knows that they cannot live this way forever, but at least she and others like her have not started selling off their homes or other assets to make up for their losses. And that gives the world a window—albeit a small and closing one—to relieve the economic burden on struggling Liberians.

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