Q&A: How the Ebola declaration could threaten food security in DRC

Ugandan business people are seen at a market with their merchandise for sale at Mpondwe border that separates Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by: REUTERS / James Akena

NAIROBI — A year into the Ebola crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the World Health Organization finally declared it a public health emergency of international concern on Wednesday.

The declaration was received by many in the humanitarian sector as long overdue, with hopes that it could increase the visibility of the crisis, which could in turn bolster resources.

“It’s really important to look at that risk before any country takes a knee-jerk reaction or implements drastic measures on border closures or movement restrictions.”

— Amy Daffe, DRC deputy country director at Mercy Corps

But there are also concerns that the declaration could negatively impact the response if neighboring countries react by imposing restrictions on trade and travel — fears that contributed to WHO’s hesitancy to make the declaration.

During the West Africa Ebola crisis in 2014, the land borders of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were closed, the movement of goods and people was restricted, and airlines suspended flights — resulting in food shortages and price increases in these three countries.

WHO declares global public health emergency in DRC Ebola outbreak

Recent events including the spread of the disease to the major urban center of Goma and the murder of two Ebola health workers led WHO to declare the outbreak a global health emergency.

According to the Famine Early Warning Network, Ebola in DRC continues to “disrupt agricultural activity,” with impacted areas already at “crisis” levels of food insecurity.

Devex spoke with Amy Daffe, DRC deputy country director at Mercy Corps, about the potential implications.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have concerns the declaration could result in restrictions on trade and travel?

That’s been a concern that Mercy Corps has been particularly vocal about prior to the announcement of the global health emergency. This area is a major economic hub and it would have huge socioeconomic impacts on the populations here.

Right now, it is critical that we are not only protecting lives, but also protecting livelihoods. It’s important to note that yesterday, in Dr. Tedros’ statement, he said that any drastic measures could actually increase transmission.

In response [to border closures or restrictions on movement], people will look to informal means of crossing borders where there are no controls, no stations where temperatures are taken, and there is no ability to track and trace the movements of people … because they need to feed their families and they need to make a living ...

It’s really important to look at that risk before any country takes a knee-jerk reaction or implements drastic measures on border closures or movement restrictions — whether it’s air, foot or vehicle.

Could the declaration impact food security?

It’s important to understand that this is a crisis within a crisis. There are already approximately 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance due to insecurity and conflict in the DRC. The area [impacted by the outbreak] itself is very volatile and Ebola is just exacerbating some of these conditions ...

What we’ve seen from our research during the West Africa outbreak, and the impact on the food insecurity situation, is that people were unable to work because there were limitations on movement and limitations on public gatherings. This impacted harvests, which impacted the supply of goods in markets.

There is potential for that to happen here because of the sheer magnitude of individuals that cross the borders to purchase and sell food. You are reducing household purchasing power and families are required to adjust their daily intake because of the availability of food ...

It’s not just the spread of the disease, but also the larger impact these restrictions would have on people and their ability to thrive and live.

Could restrictions on trade and travel impact eastern DRC’s ability to bounce back after this crisis?

It will have an impact on the ability of families to bounce back in the immediate term. You will see people selling off assets, borrowing money, in addition to the threat of contracting Ebola.

They are already living with food insecurity, but now are faced with reduced purchasing power and reduced economic power. They now have to recover from that, also.

In addition, you have to look at the nutritional side of things. What is the impact that it is going to have on families with children that are already malnourished? Is this going to exacerbate it?

Overall, do you think it was the right decision for WHO to make the declaration?

At this point, the decision has been made. We are hoping it will galvanize the support that we need and that the actors on the frontline, the U.N., the government of DRC, will further come together to end the epidemic.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.