Outbreak leaves economic hardship in its trail


Pauline Bax, Silas Gbandia and Elise Zoker

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A woman carries goods at a local market in one of the trading areas catering for people from the Kambia District. The outbreak is limiting freedom of movement. Photo: APMembers of a social mobilisation team march on the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, carrying posters with information on the symptoms of Ebola and best practices to help prevent its spread. The virus threatens to undo recent economic progress in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Photo: Reuters

SANDI Sesay’s boss promised him three months of pay when he told the driver to stop coming to work. The goal was to prevent any possible spread of Ebola at the Sierra Leone mine that employs him.

Two weeks later, Sesay, 29, has yet to see any money from Dawnus Construction, a contractor at London Mining’s Marampa iron ore deposit.

“I take care of my mother, my sisters and my wife and three children,” he said. “How am I going to cope?”

Sesay’s and Sierra Leone’s prospects were bright before the outbreak of the virus. The economy was set to grow 14 percent, almost three times faster than the average in sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia and Guinea, investment in iron ore was luring billions of dollars and fuelling growth.

Then the first case of Ebola appeared in December last year. Initially tagged as a short-term phenomenon with limited impact, the disease now threatens to cripple three economies with a combined gross domestic product of about $13 billion (R139bn) – less than that of Afghanistan.

Commodity companies are slowing production and airlines are shutting routes. In Liberia, the government says the economic impact threatens to derail progress made since the end of the civil war in 2003. Sierra Leone cancelled the first sale of bonds open to foreigners last week.

Sime Darby, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has slowed production in Liberia, while Sifca has halted rubber output from its plant there. ArcelorMittal, the biggest steel maker, has postponed expansion plans at its iron ore mine in northern Liberia because contractors moved some workers out of the country. London Mining and African Minerals, which operate in Sierra Leone, have seen their shares fall.

Richard Evans, a spokesman for UK-based Dawnus, said this was the first he had heard of anyone not being paid, adding that a “large number” of non-essential staff had been asked not to come to work while getting basic pay.

Nigerian cement magnate Aliko Dangote has pulled some employees out of his Liberian cement plant and says 1 percentage point may be shaved off the economic growth rate of the region that includes Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

“It will be a great impact,” Dangote said earlier this month. “But various governments are doing things to tackle the situation.”

Liberia has banned public gatherings and told non-essential government workers to stay home. In Sierra Leone, the government has sent hundreds of troops to cordon off the hardest-hit areas.

Edmond Saidu, the district agriculture officer in Kailahun District, said the disease had killed farmers on cocoa and peanut plantations and rice farms, leaving the crops to rot.

Liberia has also closed off afflicted regions. The government is even planning to close open-air markets, a measure that will probably push up prices in the capital.

At the crowded Duala market in central Monrovia, 17-year-old food seller Mary Kolubah said business had slowed. The wholesale shop where she obtains bags of rice in order to resell them in smaller, paper-wrapped quantities had raised prices 10 percent in just a few days, she said.

Nearby, meat seller Amadu Bah sat idle at his empty stall. Cattle traders have stopped importing cows from Guinea and Sierra Leone because the beasts must cross through infected areas. Bah said: “I’m out of business now because selling cow meat is the only thing I’ve known since I was 25 years old.”

Distrust of government in the three countries runs so deep that officials are still struggling to convince citizens that Ebola exists and is not a hoax. The virus has exposed limitations of the health-care systems that include a scarcity of doctors and thermometers, a shortage of body bags, which is preventing burials, and medical workers neglecting basic hygiene such as hand washing.

The official tally of deaths might underestimate how much the disease had spread, the UN’s health agency said last week. More than 1 200 people have died in the three countries and five have succumbed in Nigeria. The government in Africa’s largest economy has so far managed to avoid a wider outbreak.

The disease struck just as the three smaller countries were starting to bounce back from a past of violence and instability. Liberia is recovering from a civil war that spilled into its neighbour Sierra Leone during the 1990s, leaving both economies ruined. In 2010, Guinea, the biggest bauxite exporter, held its first democratic elections since independence following decades of erratic military rule.

Isolating the affected areas in Sierra Leone has made it almost impossible to get food to the capitals. The UN’s food aid agency says it will need to feed 5 percent of the population of the three countries in the coming months.

The past few months mark the first time the disease, identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, has killed anyone in west Africa.

The virus lives naturally in fruit bats and other wild animals. Humans get it from the animals’ secretions and pass it on to other humans through contact with bodily fluids.

The outbreak is isolating the countries, even if the World Health Organisation says air travel is an unlikely major transmission point.

Nigeria’s Arik Air suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone after a Liberian man travelled by plane to Lagos and infected at least eight others with the disease after he collapsed at the airport.

British Airways and Kenya Air Lines have halted routes to Liberia and Sierra Leone, while Emirates has scrapped flights to Guinea. Last week Korean Air Lines cancelled flights to Nairobi, a regional hub located thousands of kilometres away from west Africa.

“It’s not just that international flights are cancelled and movement of people is restricted because of the quarantine measures,” said political analyst Lansana Gberie. “There’s also a disabling psychological atmosphere that is not conducive to productivity.”

Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia will need about six more months to turn the outbreak around, according to Doctors Without Borders.

By then, the effects of the health emergency will have spread into fuel prices – the three countries import all their oil – food costs and lost iron ore production.

Residents of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, spend their days at home, worrying about rising food and fuel prices, despite government promises to crack down on price-gouging opportunists. Checkpoints manned by the military remind residents of a 1999 assault by rebels that left thousands dead. – Bloomberg

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