Liberian soldiers scan people for signs of the Ebola virus, as they control the movement of people in the capital, Monrovia, on Saturday. Health officials say the virus has spread to all corners of the country, and traders say people are buying only essentials. Photo: AP

Zoom Dosso Monrovia

THE WORST outbreak of the Ebola virus is taking a heavy toll on west Africa’s economy as crops rot in the fields, mines are abandoned and goods cannot get to market.

The epidemic has killed 1 427 people and infected thousands more. On Friday health officials said the fever had spread to all corners of Liberia, the worst-hit country, where 624 people have died so far.

But beyond the mounting death toll, the disease is undermining the region’s economic growth and threatening the development of some of the world’s poorest countries.

“It is a total catastrophe. We are losing lots of money,” said Alhaji Bamogo, who sells clothes in the market in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

“All those who are coming to the market come only to buy food or products for the disinfection of Ebola,” he said.

Across Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria, companies are suspending operations.

Several international airlines have halted their flights to west Africa in a move that Moody’s Investors Service warns “will exact an economic toll” on the region.

And experts warn that the impact for the regional economy could be dire if the disease takes hold in Nigeria, where 15 cases have been identified and five people have died.

“The Ebola epidemic is not just a public health crisis but an economic crisis… affecting many sectors of activity,” the president of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, warned this month.

So far the epidemic has not threatened Nigeria’s oil industry, which is centred in the southern Niger Delta about 1 000km from Lagos, where the cases have been found.

The service industry is feeling the effects, however.

“Bookings to hotels have dropped by almost 30 percent so far this month, as have orders for food and drink for large social gatherings,” said Bismarck Rewane, the head of the Lagos-based Financial Derivatives Company.

Philippe Hugon, the Africa research director at French think tank IRIS, said the biggest threat was a long-term pull-out of global companies.

“Everything depends on whether this stays limited or whether the epidemic continues to spread in a prolonged way. The heads of foreign businesses on the ground are very concerned,” he said.

The disease is also exacting a direct economic toll by sapping already stretched government budgets.

Moody’s warned it would squeeze state coffers from all sides by forcing both “increased health expenditures, and… an Ebola-induced economic slowdown on government revenue generation”.

For people on the ground, the epidemic has created an even more pressing problem: food shortages.

In the markets, supplies of staple commodities are already dwindling, with only the bravest traders willing to venture far afield to buy stocks.

In quarantined zones in Sierra Leone and Liberia, key cash crops such as cocoa and coffee have been left rotting in the fields as farmers fear to stray far from home.

“People are going to move around less and less,” said Philippe de Vreyer at the University of Paris.

“For instance, the man who usually goes to the local market to sell his vegetables will decide to stay home. People are not going to get their supplies, with all that entails.”

– Sapa-AFP