Hacking Hunger Transcript: The Ebola Epidemic is Back. This is How Food Can Help End it.

Hello, I’m Jessamyn Sarmiento, and this, is Hacking Hunger

<news clip> “You see patients in the most horrible state. And you can have patients that come in one day and the next day I’m packing them in a body bag. People are dying left and right here.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: When Ebola spread through Western Africa in 2014, it killed more than 11,000 people.

<news clips> “As we gather here today, the people of Liberia are in crisis. The Ebola virus is spreading at alarming speed. This epidemic could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months.”

<new clip> “20 cases yesterday, 40 cases today and you know that tomorrow it’s going to be 70. These are real people with real stories and real lives.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: Now it’s back. This time, the Democratic Republic of Congo is at the center of the epidemic and it’s at a critical phase.

<news clip> “The aid agencies and local officials are waging war on the virus but they are losing the fight. They cannot contain the disease. So, organizations like the World Food Programme have ramped up their response.”

<news clip> “Two-year-old Charity fights for her life in this Ebola treatment center. She was admitted today with her critically ill mother who lies isolated in another plastic cube, too sick to tend to her little girl.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: Since November of last year, more than 3,200 people in the DRC have contracted Ebola. Of those, more than 2,100 have died.

<news clip> “Can you stop it? Can you stop the spread of this virus? Is it possible?”

“Yes, it is possible. And we will win the fight by educating them, sensitizing them. Because at the beginning people were hiding in the forest. But now they are coming to us. “

Jessamyn Sarmiento: The Ebola virus kills in terrifying ways – shutting down the body’s organs and draining victims of the fluids that keep them alive. And it’s extremely contagious; even dead bodies can still transmit the disease. That means traditional burial customs must be skipped.

<CLIP FROM HERE> “They put his body safely away in a bag to prevent the spread of Ebola, no one could touch the body of anyone who had died with signs of the disease.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: The Global Health Media Project made an animated video to help frontline health workers communicate more effectively with communities affected by Ebola outbreaks.

<CLIP FROM HERE> It was too great a risk to follow all our traditions. But we still honored grandfather in the time of Ebola.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: One approach that has helped curb the spread of the disease is to trace people who might have contracted the virus and limit their movements. This is why WFP has been distributing weekly food parcels to “contacts” – people suspected of carrying Ebola, so that they don’t need to leave their homes to buy food while under medical observation.

<news clip> “We reached a distribution center where hundreds were queuing up for food. And there was something special about this group. Each one has been in direct contact with a victim of Ebola. They’re all considered high risk.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: The more suspected cases stay in one place, the less likely the virus will spread. The WFP food deliveries – a large sack containing rice, beans, oil, and salt – are an incentive to minimize movement and part of the containment strategy.

Dr. Maurice: “We knew that Ebola was serious and a very severe disease.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: This is Dr. Maurice. He is a doctor, but he is also a patient who recovered from Ebola.

Dr. Maurice: “Very contagious and very often fatal. We expected to die. My wife was treated at the same time, but I recovered before her. We were told that Ebola kills up to 90 percent of the people affected. So, I was one of the 10 percent who survived. It was a joy for the whole family. We thank the WFP which continues to supply food supplies with high nutritional value to all Ebola patients.”

Jessamyn Sarmiento: The situation in the DRC has been made worse by insecurity in the area. This is the first time in history that an Ebola epidemic is occurring in an active conflict zone. But in the midst of violence, and in some of the most challenging conditions, Ebola responders are working around the clock to ensure people can get the information, care and treatment they need. One of those people is WFP’s Jacques David. He has worked in the DRC for five years.

Jacques David: Yes, the food crisis in DRC is very serious. We have 15 million people living in food insecurity which means they struggle every day to find anything to eat. And on top of that we have 5.8 million women and children suffering from malnutrition.

It’s a huge paradox, actually, because DRC is a very fertile land. It has enough fertile land to grow corn, beans, rice and to feed the entire Africa. So, the good news is that the situation is not irreversible thanks to the huge potential DRC could demonstrate. But this potential is totally underused so far.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: So that’s interesting, of course with various kinds of interventions I’m sure much can be done, but what I’d love for you to address is you mention there’s about 15 million people who are in urgent need of food. And that number, if the reports are correct, that number has doubled since 2017. So, in just two years that’s a huge escalation. So, what’s making that happen? I know the conflict in the DRC is a drive of a lot of this and maybe you can address some of that.

Jacques David: Yes, conflict here is the main driver to huger. Just imagine this. When there is a conflict you have attacking villages and people have to run for their lives. Actually, they leave everything behind, find a new place to live where their lives are not threatened. So, this is how they become internally displaced in their own countries. But when someone is displaced, he doesn’t have access to his field, he cannot grow his food, he cannot farm anymore, so he loses access to his livelihood. Most of the time someone who is hungry in DRC is someone who hasn’t been able to make his crops. So, the situation is quite complicated, and to improve these worrying figures of course WFP can support these people in this situation, but we definitely need stability and peace to prevail all over the country.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: And to make matters even more complicated, there’s Ebola. This is obviously another issue that is driving a lot of the issues. Talk a little bit about what is happening with Ebola now. I know there have been about 2,000 deaths so far and many more cases, so potentially the crisis is worsening. Can you talk a little about the scope of the problem and how long it’s been going on.

Jacques David: There are two big crises in DRC. First one is the hunger crisis and the other is this Ebola outbreak. It’s the 10th Ebola outbreak in DRC. Actually, this one started more than a year ago. It’s the largest outbreak ever in DRC and it’s taking place in one of the most complex areas also because of the conflict situation. The fight against this outbreak is very difficult and it has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people so far and people are still dying every week.

It’s one of the most complex situations in which humanitarian organizations have to respond. First because some people still think that the virus doesn’t really exist. Some people think it is witchcraft or something. It’s very hard to recognize you have this virus. So, it’s a state of denial for people.

And then there’s community mistrust towards humanitarian organizations and sometimes manipulation. And due to this mistrust and denial, many Ebola deaths are taking place in the families, in the communities and not in the hospitals. So, it means these deaths are undetected which contributes to contaminate other people and spread the virus.

Another challenge is the insecurity. There are several armed groups fighting in the Ebola affected area which inhibits our access to affected people. When I was there, on two occasions we had to postpone our trip to distribution points because of insecurity. Someone had been killed at night and there were angry people in the streets shooting gun shots. And on some occasions our colleagues must have a blue helmets escort to be able to transport the food to some remote distribution points.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: You recently returned from a field mission where WFP was preparing some interventions. Can you explain to us what was happening on that field mission; what were you seeing and tell us about the people you met.

Jacques David: I attended food distributions to contact persons. Contact persons are people who have been in contact with Ebola patients and might have been infected by them. So, it’s very important that these people stay at home as much as possible to avoid the spread of the virus. And it’s important they are kept under medical observation to see if the virus develops itself within a period of three weeks. So, this is why it’s important and strategic to distribute food; but this food is also vital to address the food needs of these contact persons. Because as they are recommended to stay at home, they can’t go out to the markets or to farm their lands so I could see and hear that they are very thankful to WFP for receiving this food.

I also met Dr. Maurice. He’s a cured Ebola patient who explained how important it is to receive this food to be fed in a very proper way because the virus gives you very high fevers; diarrhea and vomit which makes you lose a lot of weight. So, when you have good food, it’s a great support for your body to recover.

Cured patients like Dr. Maurice receive the WFP food on a monthly basis so it helps his body to recover and it also helps with reintegration within the community.

We met cured patients who were actually stigmatized by their own families or communities despite that they have overcome the virus and when you overcome the virus you become immune and you are never going to cause contamination to anyone anymore. But it’s very difficult for people to accept this. So, when you come back to your family with food to share it makes things easier.

So, it was very interesting to be at the heart of the situation that people face on a daily basis. And Dr. Maurice’s situation gives hope to the patients he works with because he’s the proof that it’s possible to survive, especially if you go quickly to the treatment centers.

JESS: Thank you for the work you do because it’s dangerous work and you are saving lives. Can you talk about some of the programmatic elements. People here in the US hear about school feeding programs. How does that fit into it? And I would like you to give a description of WFP’s role in the logistics piece which I find fascinating and I don’t think people understand WFP’s role.

Jacques David: Regarding this Ebola response, we distribute food, that’s the main operation. But besides, we also have further developed our school feeding program because we realized that it’s really important to address the several needs of the whole community to gain trust and show that we are not there just because of Ebola but also because we really care about the holistic approach and point of view and we really recognize that there are also other important needs in addition to the Ebola situation.

So, we are supporting four times more schools than last year we’re reaching to 100 schools and we’re going to go beyond that most probably. It’s a great support for the children as they can eat at least once per day and they can attend the course in a more focused way.

Regarding the logistic aspect, WFP’s expertise and huge capacities are very well known. So, we provide the humanitarian community with warehouses, with trucks, with camps to host the medical and humanitarian staff in some Ebola hotspots. And we are really offering a huge logistical support. Logistics is something that people don’t usually see but it’s an essential for any humanitarian operation: without that, nothing can be implemented on the spot.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: As you know, most of our audience is based in the United States. So, what can you tell the listeners about why people here in the U.S. should care about a crisis that’s happening so far away?

Jacques David: Well first of all the U.S. is a country with great values and so many American people are very watchful about the respect of human dignity, wherever in the world it can threatened, and I think it’s the first reason to care about this crisis.

Well, people here are facing this epidemic and it’s really causing collective trauma. It killed more than 2,000 people and even when there’s an Ebola survivor, you can be sure that several other people in his family has died – so it’s really needed to do something to alleviate the suffering of the people here

The other reason is that there’s a risk the virus can spread to DRC’s bordering countries… and DRC is a huge country actually, which is why the World Health Organization has called this outbreak an international health crisis.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: I understand that the work that’s being done in DRC is underfunded, can you talk about why that’s a huge concern and, talk to us about where the funding is, how does funding help solve the issue and what WFP needs to ensure it can effectively help fight ebola and hunger in the country.

Jacques David: We were just talking about why people in the U.S. should care about this Ebola outbreak; maybe some of them remember what happened with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. At the beginning, the situation got out of control because the response was too small and was underfunded. So, that’s what we have to avoid in DRC and people are working very hard to avoid the situation and fortunately they’ve succeeded quite well because the outbreak is contained in only two provinces but there are still many needs and it costs money. So, it’s really now the moment to boost the Ebola response so that things can be kept under control and the virus can be defeated. And it’s better to spend money now than a huge amount of money later when the situation has gotten out of control.

<musical break>

Jacques David: I have to say that the U.S. is a great donor to WFP operations in DRC. And we still need their support as well as the support of other new donors.

Globally, WFP has planned to assist 5 million people by the end of 2019 and we still need 157 million dollars to fund the rest of our food and cash distribution operations until February 2020. with this money We also plan to support malnourished women and children and school feeding program; It’s really the time to do something for these people. And I have to say that the U.S. is a great donor to WFP operations in DRC and we still need its support as well as the support of other and new donors.

Jessamyn Sarmiento: And what happens as you wait for new donors to come to the table. What happens when there’s a gap in the funding?

Jacques David: It means that people already deprived of many things become even more vulnerable because either they don’t receive the only food that they can possibly access to eat or that they receive a reduced cash allowance. So, in all cases, they can’t feed themselves properly or they can’t eat at all and their lives might be at stake.

<musical break>

Jacques David: So, most of all I hope stability and peace might prevail in DRC, because that’s the best way to address this food insecurity crisis. Because once there is peace, people can go back to their villages and start feeding themselves again.

<musical break>

Jessamyn Sarmiento: Since the beginning of the outbreak in August 2018[CC1] , more than 660,000 people have received food from WFP. Another 440,000 people will need help within the next six months. But the response is still insufficient to meet the magnitude of the needs, and the complexity of the situation.

To learn more about WFP’s efforts to support people during emergencies like this and others, visit our website at wfpusa.org.