Posted on Friday, 30 January 2015 18:51

Ebola: The contagion of fear and disease

Photo©ReutersThe world woke up to a new threat in 2014 in the shape of the Ebola virus, which tore through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

It infected almost 15,000 people and has killed to date more than 5,000.

While fears that the crisis would develop into a global pandemic proved unfounded, the far-reaching repercussions of the emergency will continue beyond 2015.

The price of cassava rose 150% in Monrovia in August, according to the FAO.

The outbreak triggered an economic slowdown in West Africa, and governments will not know the true extent of the damage for some time.

The crisis also revealed the grim reality of decades of underfunding for healthcare and infrastructure, and demonstrated a lack of effective leadership among governments, aid organisations and the international community.

If unaddressed, the economic impact risks causing a humanitarian crisis much greater than the virus itself, as tourism revenue slumps, food prices soar and foreign direct investment disappears.

The slowdown in activity will also negatively impact government revenue collection.

Agriculture accounts for a large proportion of the three countries' economies: 57% in Sierra Leone, 39% in Liberia and 20% in Guinea, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The Ebola outbreak severely disrupted production of staple goods such as rice, maize and cassava.

In Sierra Leone, Kailahun and Kenema districts, which produce some 18% of the country's total rice crop, were badly affected by Ebola, with the FAO reporting that 90% of land in one such key area had not been cultivated.

In Guinea, the production of key export commodities slumped, with palm oil output down 75% in 2014.

Coffee production fell 50% and the cocoa harvest was reduced by a third. Food prices also soared. The price of cassava rose 150% in Monrovia in August, according to the FAO.

While dire warnings proved an advantage in marshalling the international community to dig deep – with US President Barack Obama calling for $6.2bn in emergency funding to combat Ebola – it has also exacerbated the economic gloom.

The World Bank noted that following the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in China in 2002, up to 90% of the economic impact was not from the direct impact of the disease but instead from the closure of firms and the withdrawal of staff from the workplace due to fear of contagion.

Learning from this, in November the World Bank pledged $450m in commercial financing to kickstart trade and investment in West Africa, but whether this is enough to halt the spiral of decline remains to be seen. ●

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