The outbreak of Ebola in Liberia has been contained, but the economic and humanitarian recovery may take a while longer. Last year, Liberia and Sierra Leone were in the midst of a lock down as the disease claimed thousands of lives and drove their respective economies into the ground. No new cases have been reported in Liberia while Sierra Leone continues to report a few outbreaks.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) international associate Luke Asikoye, recently returned from Liberia, where he saw firsthand, the efforts to jumpstart the economy and help communities become more self-sustainable.
“One of the biggest challenges is to try and get the market systems going,” said Asikoye. “Because of Ebola, numerous market opportunities nearly shut down, but we are beginning to renew those markets. The communities have missed planting and harvest seasons and people are finding the cost of food out of their reach.”
Asikoye said the disease forced many companies to shut down; airline service in and out of the country was suspended forcing a number of the markets to close. As travel has slowly opened, the cost of fares has skyrocketed.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People have been working to help Liberia and Sierra Leone rebuild and rehabilitate in light of civil war and disease. The West Africa Initiative (WAI) grew out of the collaboration in 2007. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) also joined the effort.
The WAI goal is to improve food security and the economic status of individuals, families and communities, develop and strengthen community-based organizations and develop the technical and management capabilities of the Council of Churches. For years, WAI saw growing cooperation with various communities. Shared farms developed self-reliant food production, reduced food shortages and improved the quality of life. But Ebola cut into the council’s accomplishments.
The disease outbreak has created another problem for Liberia, a rising number of orphans. Some have been taken in by extended families, but authorities are still struggling to meet the needs of children who have lost everyone and everything. Authorities estimate the number of orphans in both Liberia and Sierra Leone at more than 25,000.
“Even before Ebola, children were facing numerous challenges after more than 15 years of war,” said the Rev. Kortu Brown, first vice president of the Liberia Council of Churches. “The worst of the disease outbreak may be over, but the stigma of the virus has lingered on and one of the main challenges we face is the stigma on survivors.”
The council is working to provide shelter for thousands of orphans. Brown said the role of the church is to create an awareness of the problems facing children without families and encourage people to embrace them.
“People are afraid. Because of the stigma of the disease, people don’t want to be near them,” said Brown. “During the Ebola outbreak, we felt the ecumenical community abandoned us, especially in North America. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stood with us.”
Brown said that only after the virus was contained did the ecumenical community begin to return to the region.
For now, the church is working with its ecumenical partners to help prepare Liberia for next year’s planting season, which runs from June to September. Unemployment in the region was high before Ebola and the closing of various markets is making it even harder for communities to recover. In addition, schools have been slow to re-open and the council of churches is working to provide opportunities for orphaned children to return to the classroom.
For more information on the work in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, go to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website.