HUNGER and panic are spreading among people unable to work because of restrictions aimed at containing the spread of Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone, say Church workers in West Africa.
In Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Church groups “are trying to get food and distribute it to families who have asked us to help, but movement is heavily restricted and there is little we can do”, Salesian Father Jorge Crisafulli, provincial superior in West Africa, said in a telephone interview from Accra, Ghana.
Neighbourhoods in Monrovia have been sealed off under terms of the government-imposed state of emergency.
The World Health Organisation has estimated that more than 2600 people in West Africa have been infected with Ebola since March. More than 1400 people have died from the virus.
Food prices in Liberia were “rising steeply and people are hungry”, Fr Crisafulli said, noting that “markets in the city that are usually bustling are now empty and no trading is happening”.
People were unable to get to work and, “while they still have to buy food, they have no money because they can’t work”, he said.
“There is great fear of spread of disease where there are large groups of people,” he said.
Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are the countries mainly affected by the current Ebola outbreak.
“Particularly in Liberia, Ebola has become an economic and social problem as well as a health problem,” Fr Crisafulli said, noting that “panic and fear are now greater problems than the disease itself”.
“Feelings of isolation are brought on by international fear of ‘Ebola countries’ and banning of flights,” he said, adding that “people feel like lepers of earlier centuries”.
Many people recovered from Ebola and returned to their families, and there were “stories of extraordinary courage” in the face of death, he said.
Hunger was also a major problem in Sierra Leone, executive director of Caritas for Freetown archdiocese Fr Peter Konteh said, citing as an example a complex near his own home that had been quarantined.
Security guards were placed at the gate of the Freetown complex that was home to 54 people after the August 6 death of an Ebola-infected doctor who lived there, he said.
While the guards ensured no one entered or left, there were stories that some had been bribed by residents “who said they were desperate to get out to buy food”, he said in an August 25 telephone interview.
Places affected by Ebola were quarantined for 21 days, he said.
Fr Konteh said he and other Church workers were investigating ways to provide food to people in similar situations “to help prevent desperation”.
While Caritas’ European staffers had returned home, the local staff continued their work, he said, noting that “one of our finance clerks who has lost nine members of her family to Ebola still comes to work every day”.
Food prices had escalated, particularly since the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea was closed in June, Fr Konteh said.
Many people in Sierra Leone bought their food with money earned the same day, mostly through informal trading, he said, noting that the closure of trading places had led to severe levels of hunger.
Salesians in Liberia were “also worrying about how to pay teachers’ salaries” after they had to shut their schools in line with the state of emergency, Fr Crisafulli said.
“We still need to pay salaries, but we have no school fees to use for this,” he said, adding that “the education system here is already in crisis and now everyone has the added setback of losing an academic year”.
In Sierra Leone, the Government had asked the Salesians to take responsibility for children who had been orphaned through Ebola, Fr Crisafulli said, noting that the order “accepted this challenge” after making careful preparations to do so safely.
“We are planning our interventions in an organised manner, taking people’s long-term as well as immediate needs into consideration,” he said.
Recognising that “prevention education can reduce levels of fear”, the Salesians had produced and distributed leaflets and billboards in Nigeria and Ghana as well as Sierra Leone and Liberia, he said.
Ebola is spread among humans through direct contact with infected bodily fluids.