COVID-19, which began spreading in China in late 2019 and is now impacting nearly every country around the globe, is unique in its scale and rapid spread: The world has not seen such a lethal global pandemic since the Spanish flu over 100 years ago. However, there have been more recent pandemics which we can examine to guide the global response to COVID-19. The H1N1 influenza outbreak of 2009 spread widely around the world, but had a much lower fatality rate than COVID-19 and therefore did not warrant the level of measures now being taken to stop the COVID-19 spread.

A more apt comparison for the humanitarian community is the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The Ebola virus has a high death rate, and the outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea resulted in lockdowns similar to those now being seen on a much larger scale. GeoPoll’s experience conducting research during Ebola outbreaks aligns with the shifts from face-to-face to remote research we are seeing now, and the humanitarian community is also looking to its experience with Ebola to guide its response to COVID-19 around the globe.

Prepare for Long-Term Impacts to Food Security and Economies

Ebola infographicOne of the main areas of comparison between Ebola and coronavirus is the long-term impacts that come with a disease outbreak. During and after the Ebola outbreak, food security and economic impacts were a major concern. GeoPoll’s study with USAID and FHI360 on long-term economic impacts of Ebola found that from June 2014 to June 2015 32% in Liberia and 45% of respondents in Sierra Leone reported that income had dropped in the past year. We also used our remote methodology to study food insecurity and market operability, finding that those in the Ebola epicenters had higher food insecurity than surrounding areas, and that as the disease continued to spread markets were operating at reduced capacity.

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As coronavirus spreads to developing regions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, there are already concerns around the food availability, unrest, and economic impacts that will follow. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that a global food crisis is possible unless measures are taken to protect the food supply chain, and it is likely that food prices will also rise. Additionally, lockdowns and social distancing measures are likely to have an outsized impact on countries that rely on informal markets and exports of commodities including oil. In countries that already suffer from food insecurity and unstable economies, coronavirus could have a devastating effect on food security and wellbeing. Humanitarian organizations must act rapidly to prevent widespread food insecurity and other hardships, but they are also dealing with the need to quickly adapt systems to a new environment.

Adapt Aid and Research Systems

To prevent worst-case scenarios from occurring, the humanitarian community must work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from overwhelming fragile healthcare systems and economies. However, as we saw the Ebola outbreak, there will be challenges surrounding aid delivery and monitoring of situations on-the-ground. Due to the travel restrictions that have been implemented to stop coronavirus’ spread, aid organizations are already experiencing challenges delivering required goods. Gavi, the vaccine alliance, has stated that 21 countries are experiencing vaccine shortages due to travel disruptions, and farmers in Kenya have been left without supplies to fight the worst locust infestation seen in years.

Additionally, aid organizations and their workers are grappling with the decision to stay and help those who are in need or protect themselves from the virus. The World Health Organization found that during the West African Ebola outbreak, healthcare workers were over 20 times more likely to become infected than the general population, a statistic that we may see repeated with the COVID-19 outbreak.

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These factors present a challenge for humanitarian organizations that are looking to monitor indicators such as food security and then deliver the necessary aid to vulnerable populations. During the Ebola outbreak, GeoPoll watched as development organizations shifted their data collection from in-person to remote methodologies. With partners including USAID, Keystone Accountability, and FEWS Net, we completed over 200,000 surveys of those living in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea that enabled development organizations to better respond to the disease outbreak.

While it is impossible to conduct business as usual during a global pandemic, the Ebola response taught us that by quickly adapting, it is possible to gather the vital information needed to assist the global response. The effects of coronavirus will be felt for years to come, but by looking to lessons learned during previous disease outbreaks and quickly scaling to meet anticipated needs, organizations like ours can help those most in need.

To learn about GeoPoll’s efforts to aid the international response to coronavirus and view our free reports on the topic, visit our coronavirus resources page.