As Ebola cases decline, West Africa needs help with economic recovery

By Oxfam
Finda Fallah Macos, an Ebola survivor in Liberia, where Oxfam has so far helped 445,000 people. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Prevention efforts remain critical, but investment in jobs and support for essential services will also be key to the region’s recovery.

Though the number of new Ebola cases in West Africa is beginning to fall, the deadly disease has left a second round of trouble in its wake: economic hardship.

The outbreak has sickened more than 21,000 people and claimed more than 8,500 lives. In Liberia, the number of new cases has fallen to a handful a week and the country is hoping it can be Ebola-free by early March. Guinea is hoping for the same by early April. In Sierra Leone, where the rate of new cases is also dropping, there are still more than 100 new people diagnosed with Ebola in a week.

While all of this is a cause for optimism, we are concerned that new hotspots of this terrible disease could still emerge. Continued vigilance is essential, as is the need to help West Africa rebuild what it has lost.

In a recent survey of three counties in Liberia—Monserrado, Nimba, and Grand Geddeh—Oxfam found that 73 percent of families had seen their incomes drop an average of 39 percent. And this is in a country where more than 50 percent of people already lived below the poverty line. Our findings echo those of other organizations, including the World Bank, which reveal that between 60 and 70 percent of Liberians have lost income.

To help fight this new economic challenge, we are calling for a multi-million-dollar initiative—like the Marshall Plan, which helped Europe recover after World War II—to put Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea back on their feet.

“People need cash in their hands now,” said Oxfam’s Mark Goldring during a recent visit to Liberia. “They need good jobs to feed their families in the near future and decent health, education, and other essential services. They’ve gone through hell and they cannot be left high and dry.”

Mark Goldring meets Macos with her son Fallah and her sisters children Tama and Sona. Macos’ sister died from the disease leaving her 2 children orphaned. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

We would like to see an international pledging conference in which rich countries agree to back the economic recovery of these West African nations, two of which—Sierra Leone and Liberia—had among the fastest growing economies on the continent before the Ebola outbreak erupted. Now, the World Bank estimates that nearly 180,000 people in Sierra Leone have lost their jobs, and in Liberia, half of the heads of households are out of work.

For families, loss of income translates into hunger. In Liberia, 60 percent of the people we surveyed said they hadn’t had enough food in the last seven days. To cope, people have been relying on the generosity of friends and neighbors, cutting down their portion size, and reducing the number of meals they eat in a day.

Key to the success of an economic recovery package for West Africa will be investment in jobs; support for essential services such as health, education, and water and sanitation; and the immediate provision of cash to families affected by the crisis.

Cash distribution and ongoing prevention

We’re now exploring ways to help families get that money and our aim is to provide cash support to 43,000 Liberians—or about 60 percent of the population—in the three counties we surveyed. And our goal is to make sure that least 50 percent of those we help will be women. Though we are still working out the details, the project will likely include a mix of direct cash support and the engagement of people in community projects in exchange for cash. Our cash-for-work initiative will include farmers, with the goal of readying swampland for planting.

Our efforts don’t stop there. We are continuing to fight the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Senegal. Our goal is to help more than 3.2 million people, about 1.1 million of whom we have already reached through community level social mobilization and by supporting medical facilities with water, sanitation, and cleaning equipment.

In Liberia, in collaboration with the government and community Ebola task forces, we are working with 454 volunteers who are going door to door to identify people with symptoms and encourage them to seek testing and treatment. One of the keys to our work in communities is to involve local leaders.

Reednel Kun, is an Oxfam Community Health Volunteer. She was a student but because of the Ebola crisis her school had to close down. New Kru Town. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

“I made myself available in order to save my community and help my country,” said Reednal Kun, one of the volunteers. “There was no awareness when the outbreak first came from June to August.”

In Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Mali we are working with communities and women’s groups to raise awareness about Ebola and to support preparedness.

“The world cannot walk away now that, thankfully, cases of this deadly disease are dropping,” said Goldring. “Failure to help these countries will condemn them to a double disaster. The world was late waking up to the Ebola crisis. There can be no excuse for not helping to put these economies back together.”

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