Lessons for dealing with coronavirus from WFP’s response to Ebola

Two veterans of the 2014–16 outbreak in West Africa recall how agency stepped up to support medical response

Peyvand Khorsandi
Mar 31, 2020 · 5 min read
An Ebola treatment centre in Beni in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where WFP provides specialized nutritious food. Photo: WFP/Jacques David

As Coronavirus casts a gloom that has resulted in an unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe an outbreak, I thought I’d go in search of some good news, to find a glimmer of cheer.

Ebola might be an odd subject to head to — between 2014 and 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 11,310 people died after contracting the virus. Yet this figure would have been much higher were it not for the World Food Programme (WFP) venturing out of its traditional areas of expertise. And that’s the good news.

‘We are not doctors but we can help doctors do their work’

In 2015, Natasha’s job was to visit Guinea, Libera and Sierra Leone — the three worst-affected countries — to help map out their way forward once the acute emergency had ended.

“The initial thinking was this is a medical crisis and we cannot cross lines and we shouldn’t be doing things WHO should be doing,” says Natasha. “But when we became aware of the potential dimensions of that crisis, then it became clear that WFP would have to get involved in a very serious way because of our logistics capacity to procure quickly and organise the supply chain.”

Food rations distribution point for ‘contacts’ — people who’ve crossed paths with Ebola sufferers — in Mukulia village near Beni, DRC. Photo: WFP/Deborah Nguyen

Aboubacar Koisha agrees — he was a regional officer at WFP Dakar who focused on monitoring and evaluation during the outbreak. “You need people who can make things move,” he says. “This is where WFP has a comparative advantage. We have the logistical skills — we are not doctors but we can help the doctors do their work by facilitating the right environment.”

“These were countries where systems were broken. Liberia was coming out of a 16-year civil war. Human resources were displaced, top officials were killed, infrastructures were broken, then came Ebola. Even the government didn’t know what to do. They didn’t have the financial, human and material resources.”

The 2014–2016 Ebola crisis was the worst since Zaire’s in 1976 — the virus takes its name from Zaire’s Ebola River. Infections were first reported in Guinea in 2013 and quickly spread to neighbouring countries. On 8 August 2014, WHO declared a health emergency of international concern, setting off alarm bells across the world. Money poured into countries that had been forgotten by donors— there was an abundance of funding which meant that in addition to providing nutritious food and building facilities, WFP could focus on changing lives in the long term.

“We put a lot of emphasis on programmes that were leading these three nations towards more self-sustainability, investing more in livelihoods, recovery and education,” says Natasha, “focusing on gender — there are some very particular gender issues and discrepancies, especially in Liberia.”

Guided by the pillars of Care, Protect and Contain, “WFP distributed food and non-food items so people wouldn’t fall into extreme food insecurity,” says Aboubacar. “It’s a challenge to get food to people in a normal situation, let alone when they are confined” — people had to be isolated for periods of 21 days. “There could be no movement, no going to market, no going to the creek to get water,” he adds.

A woman’s temperature is checked as she receives food assistance in Mukulia, DRC. Photo: WFP/Deborah Nguyen

“The Ebola crisis demonstrated to everyone that WFP is a very critical partner around the table,” says Natasha. A “new dialogue” was created as “WHO and other medical organizations asked WFP to get involved in the future planning of coverage with essential medical supplies in Africa.”

Aboubacar says that information-gathering was key to creating a winning strategy. Text-messaging questions to people receiving assistance — and creating a free hotline for them to call for feedback — allowed decision-makers to take informed steps that could be “harmonized and synchronized” across the affected countries. There were challenges, too, he adds — only 53 percent of people had mobile phones and most of them lived in areas with little or no electricity.

WFP has since been replicating its learnings, most recently working with WHO to end the Ebola crisis that broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2018, with help from donors such as Canada, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations and the United States Agency for International Development. The disease has killed 2,264 people but an end is now in sight — the there have been no new cases since February.

Currently living in lockdown in Rome amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Natasha recalls her visits to WFP clinics in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone five years ago.

Distributing food to quarantined households in Port Loko, Sierra Leona in 2015. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

“That had a huge impact on me because then I realized how exposed some of our colleagues were, working in those three countries. Trying to do what is already a demanding job, I saw them taking personal health risks. This was an act of courage — they were heroes.”

She insists that we all have a responsibility to obey health guidelines amidst such an emergency.

“[In West Africa in 2015] a colleague from another UN agency shook somebody’s hand,” she says. “That person came out with symptoms hours later. He had to be flown on an emergency flight to his home country to be kept in quarantine.”

“Little things can really change things around — just that little slip could have cost him and others their lives.

“One needs to be very disciplined and respectful of the rules — that’s the prevention. Each and every individual needs to play the role they should, to do as much as they can. Handwashing is very important.”

Read more about WFP’s response to COVID-19

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