While the media and many agencies have focused on the concern that the Ebola outbreak may lead to rises in food prices, our latest results suggest the dangers lie elsewhere. Our latest round of market surveys took place in October, shortly after all Sierra Leoneans were asked to stay at home for two days. Since our last report the geographic burden of the disease has shifted considerably and new cordon restrictions have been imposed in Port Loko, Moyamba, and Bombali.
Figure 1: Geographic Spread of Confirmed Cases and Cordon Restrictions, September 18 and October 23
The main results of our survey are:
1. Prices of basic food commodities at markets are not significantly higher in October than they were at this time in previous years, nor are they higher on average in cordon areas.
2. The number of traders selling basic food items has continued to fall in all districts. In Kailahun and Kenema (the first districts to be cordoned) there are 69 percent fewer domestic rice traders than in 2012, while the decline in newly cordoned areas is 29 percent. This suggests the major economic threat is not food prices but income, especially for those who produce cash crops and are dependent on selling their product to traders.
Figure 2: Number of Domestic Rice Traders per Market
3. There are outliers where prices are much higher, and there are more of these outliers than in normal years.
4. There are an increasing number of markets that are closed. In most of these cases traders report they are selling food from their homes. However, it will be important to monitor food security at the household level to ensure that food (at reasonable prices) is reaching households, especially in remote locations.
5. Very preliminary data, however, suggests a new risk to food security or at least a potential delay in the rice harvests. Rainfall in September was much higher than it usually is at this time of year, but it did begin to fall back down in October. This may negatively impact the rice harvest, or at the very least delay the rice harvest.
Figure 3: Average Rainfall by Month in Sierra Leone and Liberia
Other data collection efforts are attempting to capture the decline in economic activity more generally as well as utilization of health care for non-Ebola-related health issues. We will report on the results of this work as soon as they are available.