31 August 2014

West Africa: Ebola's 'Avoidable' Impact On the West African Economy

The Ebola epidemic has a tight grip on West Africa. Now the virus has spread to Senegal, the fifth country in Africa to be affected. As drugs companies scramble to find a cure, the region's economy is feeling the pinch.

Senegal has started an emergency investigation, after tracing its first case of Ebola back to a 21-year-old student from neighboring Guinea. After being falsely diagnosed with malaria three days after his arrival in Senegal, he was sent back home to a relative's house. His symptoms included fever, diarrhea and vomiting.

A few days later, after Guinea issued a warning that someone had escaped the quarantine, he was diagnosed as carrying the deadly virus. Since then, he has been in quarantine in Dakar and an urgent trace investigation has been initiated.

Health Minister Awa Marie Coll-Seck confirmed Senegal's first case last Friday

There is a 90 percent death rate for those who contract the virus. So far, over 3,000 people have been diagnosed with Ebola and over 1,500 people have died since the latest outbreak, which has been traced back to last December.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last Thursday warned that the epidemic was accelerating and could grow six times larger to infect as many as 20,000 people.

There is currently no vaccine or treatment for the disease. Japan last week offered to supply over 20,000 samples of an anti-influenza treatment drug to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.

The experimental drug ZMapp, produced by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, has so far been implemented in a number of successful, but also in a number of fatal, cases. Now, the US has announced the drug will start its first human clinical trials next week.

Human and economic cost

Beyond the heavy human toll, the virus is also affecting West Africa's economy.

President of the African Development Bank Donald Kaberuka has made it clear that the economy of Sierra Leone - which has reported the second-highest number of Ebola infections behind Liberia - is suffering. He told Reuters news agency that the country's GDP for 2014 could drop by four percent over last year.

The epidemic is causing people to cancel projects, he warned, and businesspeople are leaving the country. In a press release, however, the bank was more reserved; it said it expected an overall drop of 1.5 percent in the affected countries.

So far, the WHO has not issued any travel bans, but tourism and trade are still greatly affected, Kaberuka pointed out, as "private airlines have stopped flying to these countries."

Some African countries, such as Kenya, Senegal and South Africa, have issued travel restrictions to the affected nations.

For the year 2014, Sierra Leone's goal had been to export $220 million (167 million euros) worth of diamonds. The country has already announced this goal will not be realized, as miners are afraid to go to work because the diamond fields are located in the hardest hit areas. International personnel is being pulled out of the region. Those factors spell economic trouble.

Bad image

Malawian businessman Desmond Dudwa Phiri says he believes many of the economic problems associated with the disease's outbreak will be caused by the continent's "image problem" more than anything else.

"Many people think Africa is a country. When they hear bad news from a place in Africa, they think the whole continent is affected," he says. For this reason, he argues that the current developments in West Africa will spill over into other regions - but not because they have to.

Christoph Kannengiesser, CEO of the German African Business Association, accuses international companies of not having a nuanced enough perspective on Africa.

"It is being treated - as usual - in the media and is viewed by many people as a continent of crises, wars and disasters," he told DW, stressing that only a handful of countries have been affected thus far.

Kannengiesser is certain of recovery: "Trade relations, import-export relations and the opening of distribution offices - all of this is only going to be postponed to a later date, when restrictions are no longer in place," he said. He is optimistic that this could all start happening in just a few months.

But the region's image is not only damaged in the West. Malawian businessman Phiri, who is located 6,000 kilometers away from Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, says, "Ebola is a horrible disease. We are all worried. Even here in Malawi, people are cautious. We are making sure that foreigners get medical examinations before they enter the country."

Liberia, hardest hit by Ebola with nearly 700 deaths, is banning ship crews from disembarking in the government's latest attempt to stem the virus

'Don't overreact'

Kannengiesser urges businesses not to overreact. The region's "economic heavyweights" - Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal - have been largely unaffected by the crisis, he claims. While his association advises companies in these countries to be on alert, he says there is no need for them to leave.

"In the mid- and long-term, Africa is not going to be defined by Ebola, but instead by a growing middle class and business-friendly economic policies," he told DW, adding that Africa is and will remain one of the big growing markets.

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