There are some startling facts about Ebola. One is that since March 2014, over 3,000 people have died from the rapid spread of the virus, throughout some West African countries. Another is that there has not been one full debate about the Ebola crisis, in either the House of Commons or House of Lords. I am not saying that electric collars on dogs or waste bin charges are not important issues. But it seems odd that parliament has found time to discuss these relatively mundane matters, but has not had time to discuss this epidemic of biblical proportions. Let’s be honest, it’s still seen as an “African problem”, not really affecting us in the West. We could not be more wrong.
Before the Ebola outbreak, West African countries were making encouraging economic progress. Indeed Liberia and Sierra Leone were among the top 10 nations with the highest GDP growth in the world, albeit starting from a low base. Guinea had high expectations based on its iron projects, attracting international investors like Rio Tinto and Chinalco. But Ebola has drastically cut output and has affected investor confidence.
The Ebola epidemic is halting trade, hurting agriculture and scaring away investors. The countries most affected have tried to halt the virus, by implementing quarantines in areas where the infection risk is high. Neighbouring countries such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire have imposed restrictions on the movement of people and goods, including border closures. But these measures have consequently reduced internal and regional trade. This includes cross-border trade, which could range from 20% to 75% of GDP for West African countries. While these actions aim to break the chain of transmission, it is no wonder the president of Sierra Leone has called them an “economic blockade”, which could be just as effective as the virus in damaging the welfare of his people.
Agriculture remains a vital part of the West African economy. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) agriculture accounts for 57% of Sierra Leone’s GDP, 39% of Liberia’s, 22% of Nigeria’s and 20% of Guinea’s. But Ebola has disrupted the planting season and there will be diminished yields for staple crops like rice and maize, during the crucial harvest period, between October and December. According to the FAO, in Liberia alone the price of the cassava vegetable has risen by a staggering 150%. Food price increases like this could cause inflation.
Mining activity is 14 % of Liberia’s economy and about 17% of Sierra Leone’s. But this is decreasing, after restrictions on travelling and the repatriation of mining personnel. The China Union and Arcelor Mittal are scaling down their iron ore operations . Several firms, including Australian mining firm Tawana Resources and Canadian Overseas Petroleum have suspended work and sent foreign workers home. Investments may be postponed or even cancelled, if the risks are too high.
Fiscal revenues are declining, since limited economic activity has reduced revenues from taxes, tariffs and customs duties. The World Bank reports that “short-term fiscal impacts are also large, at least $120 million for Guinea, $93 million for Liberia and $79 million for Sierra Leone. ” If large depositors withdraw funds, banks may face liquidity problems. Capital flight is a risk, affecting exchange rates and decreasing confidence in the financial markets. The World Bank reports that many wealthier Guineans and expatriates have already left the country and that Sierra Leone is experiencing capital outflows.
Tourism is another Ebola victim. British Airways, Air France, and Emirates Airlines have implemented some bans on flights to and from the most affected countries. The Chief Executives of 11 firms operating in West Africa have said that some travel restrictions are doing more harm than good; and maybe exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, by blocking crucial trade flows. There are legitimate concerns that Ebola will diminish tourism throughout the African continent. Misconceptions about the transmission of the virus and the risk of travel in Africa may further reduce tourism to and within the continent.
The biggest threat to West Africa may not be the virus itself, but the fear factor. As stressed by the World Bank, “the largest economic effects of the crisis are not as a result of the direct costs (mortality, caregiving, and losses to working days), but rather those resulting from aversion behaviour, driven by fear of contagion. This in turn leads to a fear of association with others and reduces labour force participation, closes places of employment, disrupts transportation and motivates some government and private decision makers to close sea ports and airports ”. The World Bank noted that it was behavioural effects that were responsible for 80% to 90% of the total economic impact of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002-04 and the H1N1 Flu epidemic of 2009.
The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) recently predicted that if the virus continues to spread at current rates, more than 1.4 million people will be infected before the outbreak is contained. For some months this virus was portrayed as an “African” problem. Then we had the high profile cases of a few individuals in America and Europe, being infected. That woke us all up to the fact that Ebola does not respect geographical boundaries and could be our problem too.
In the West we are very unlikely to become infected with Ebola on a large scale. Our health systems and basic sanitary conditions are far superior to that of West Africa. But if West Africa’s economy becomes increasingly impoverished by Ebola, it will be looking to the rest of the world for more financial and humanitarian help. This is potentially a Global problem that the world has to address. The United States and UK have been major donors. Some argue that China’s contribution could be a lot more, especially in view of their business connections with Africa. On 16 September the UN requested $998 million from the international community, to fight Ebola. As of 30 October, only $60 million has been donated.
It is interesting that in the Bible, leaders like Moses, Daniel and Joseph were used to deliver plans to rescue their nations from plagues and pestilence. I believe the answers lie in our leaders making the right decisions, in a time of crisis. Because this is a global problem, we need to have short term and long term solutions. In the short term there has to be a united African and international response, to stop the virus spreading. But in the longer term we need to consider how to integrate investment in health systems into regional development plans, so that public health crises like Ebola can be addressed more quickly and even averted in the future. We cannot let Ebola take over.
To view, “Ebola Takeover” in Endeavour Magazine click here.