Airlines have canceled flights to the countries most affected. Prices of staple goods are going up and food supplies are dwindling. Border posts are being closed, foreign workers are going home and national growth rates are projected to plummet.
Ebola — the reality and the hysteria over it — is having a serious economic impact on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, three nations already at the bottom of global economic and social indicators. Aggravating both the financial and social consequences, these countries and their neighbors are enacting concentric circles of quarantines — cutting off neighborhoods, regions and even whole nations.
International medical authorities have said such practices will worsen suffering and deprivation and do little to stop the spread of the disease.
However, many African nations have gone ahead anyway, sealing borders, barring entry to residents of the affected countries and barring flights to those countries.
For the worst-hit nations, “isolating and stigmatizing them and making it difficult to transport supplies, personnel and other resources” can only make things worse, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, Luis Gomes Sambo, said at a meeting in Ghana last week.
For three nations that have only recently emerged from decades of war and political upheaval, Ebola has dealt a hard blow.
“After a decade of conflict, we were set to restore the economy to its prewar status,” Liberian Finance Minister Amara Konneh said in an interview. “This outbreak is dealing a serious blow to all of our efforts. This is the biggest crisis we have faced since the end of our civil war.”
With sections of Liberia and Sierra Leone under quarantine and the borders in Senegal and Guinea sealed, the movement of goods has slowed. National budgets are under strain, healthcare expenditures are rising, government revenues are dropping and agricultural production — especially in Sierra Leone — has been hurt. South Africa is barring entry to non-South Africans who have been in the affected countries, while Kenya and Senegal are practicing similar measures.
“With the main harvest now at risk and trade and movements of goods severely restricted, food insecurity is poised to intensify in the weeks and months to come,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization regional representative for Africa Bukar Tijani said in a statement on Tuesday last week.
This week the UN said that the price of cassava, a staple starch, increased 150 percent in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in the first week of last month. In Sierra Leone, rice, fish, palm oil and other basics have all risen in price, the country’s finance ministry said.
Fear of Ebola has added uncertainty, recalling the worst period of the civil wars in the 1990s.
“People are thinking, ‘This is going to be as bad as the war,’” said Rupert Day, who runs Tropical Farms, a British cocoa and coffee trading company in eastern Sierra Leone, at the heart of the Ebola zone.
“My staff said, ‘At least during the war, you knew when the rebels were coming,’” Day said.
He has had to shut down much of his operation and lay off many in his staff of about 90.
Five months into the epidemic, World Bank officials said they were still working out its economic impact in light of a new WHO estimate of 20,000 potential cases.
In Sierra Leone, where the finance ministry this week produced a detailed summary of Ebola’s economic implications, there are likely to be fewer farmers to harvest cassava, cocoa and coffee in the country’s breadbasket. Villagers spoke of harvests being canceled this year because so many farmers had died and the finance ministry predicted “the loss of a whole planting season.”
It projected a one-third drop in agricultural output.
In Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, patrons are sparse at hotels and restaurants catering to the expatriates who are vital for the economy. Hotel occupancy rates have dropped 40 percent.
There is already “scaling down” at the country’s three biggest manufacturers: a brewery, a bottling company and a cement plant, the finance ministry said.
In Kenema, population 600,000, the major city in Sierra Leone’s Ebola zone, the market stalls are still full of goods and produce, but it is unclear how much of the produce, on which the rest of the country depends, is flowing out. There is a “shortage of basic food items in the markets, especially in the urban areas,” the finance ministry said.
“You have a general sense that the economy is completely shut up,” said paramount chief David Keili-Coomber, a leading official.
Farmers need bank loans to hire labor to clear the land around the cacao trees, but “because of Ebola they won’t give us loans,” Keili-Coomber said. “There is a general atmosphere of fear.”
Day said that the epidemic had stymied his operation. Buying cocoa and coffee beans has become nearly impossible.
“We can’t take the risk of sending staff into the bush,” to buy beans from small-scale growers, he said in an interview in Kenema.
Many of them have died, in any case.
“The guys from this village, or that village, have died,” Day added. “That makes it really upsetting. I know these guys.”
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