Ebola outbreak takes toll on local economies

Ebola outbreak takes toll on local economies

The deadly Ebola virus has continued to spread across West Africa, with dire secondary effects on the affected countries’ economies.

The deadly Ebola virus made news when it killed Sheikh Umar Khan, a leading doctor in Sierra Leone fighting the virus’ spread. Reports estimate that 900 people have already died from this latest outbreak.

There are now confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigeria. Two American doctors also infected with the virus, were moved to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, officially bringing the disease into the US. The speed at which the disease has spread and killed makes this outbreak of Ebola the largest ever recorded.

Resources are needed to fight the disease, and fast. There are many challenges in the battle against Ebola. As the first big outbreak in West Africa, the region has no prior experience dealing with Ebola on this scale.

To make matters worse, the region is financially ill-equipped to treat the virus. The average annual per capita spending on healthcare ranges from $32 in Guinea to $96 in Liberia, compared to $8,895 in the United States.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are a few vaccines are being tested, but there is no cure as of yet. Concerns have arisen as to why a cure – one that is realistically possible – has not been developed yet.

The answer is financial. There is little incentive to invest in a vaccine for a disease that affects poorer countries in erratic patterns – reflecting larger health concerns across the developing world.

As with any epidemic, the affected countries have already demonstrated specific threats to the economic environment.

The manufacturing sector has already shown effects: foreign companies have expressed concern over remaining in West Africa. Many international companies are imposing special restrictions on affected countries. Foreign governments have requested their nationals to register with the embassies.

The agricultural sector has also suffered, with people fleeing from affected regions. Local market places in Sierra Leone are reportedly deserted, all local businesses and schools closed. The local population has been told to refrain from making contact with other people, endangering the local businesses and people’s livelihood.

The IMF confirms that in Guinea, Sierra Leone’s neighbour, economic activity was already “subdued” in the first half of the year, as a direct result of the looming epidemic. Guinea’s economic growth is now expected to slow to 3.5%, previously forecasted at 4.5%. To curb the situation, the World Bank has pledged $200 million to help contain the epidemic – and perhaps some of the fear.

Liberia’s mining sector has also been hit, after it closed all of its borders to try to contain the Ebola outbreak. The mining sector makes up 14% of Liberia’s economy, and involves many international companies such as ArcelorMittal, Hummingbird, Chevron and Exxon and Total.

However, for West African economies, fear may be the biggest worry, as corporations’ shutting down of operations and governments’ pulling out of foreign nationals preemptively risks spreading more fear, and further harming these already fragile economies. The damage of this fear is important side effect of the Ebola virus.

The economic damage also goes beyond those countries directly affected. Neighboring Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are immersed in the gold and cocoa markets, and the spread of Ebola into these nations would undoubtedly harm the global commodities market.

Previous global health epidemics such as SARS have shown how much a disease can cost, economically, and have demonstrated the speed at which fear can travel. Besides all the lives lost, the economies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan shrunk dramatically in 2003 as a result of SARS, and many foreign corporations saw a decline in profits with productivity falling.

Lessons learned from previous epidemics could help international organizations fight this epidemic, reduce the fear factor, and cause changes in structures of international medicine regulation and investment.

About Author

Margaux Schreurs

Margaux lives in Beijing and works as an editor at a Beijing-based magazine and website, and writes on a freelance basis for a wide range of publications throughout the world, mainly focusing on East and Southeast Asian current affairs. She is a London School of Economics and Political Science MSc graduate.