Urgent bailouts for Ebola crisis in West Africa – Punch

By The Citizen

With the death toll already topping 4,000 from over 8,000 cases of infection, each passing day has tended to further reinforce the capacity of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease to wreak havoc, if allowed a free rein. Already, the world is regretting the slow response that has created a situation described by the World Health Organisation as 'the most severe acute health emergency in modern times.'

Although most of the cases have occurred in the three West African states of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola's potential to strike freely has been amply demonstrated by the fact that deaths from the disease have also been recorded in Nigeria, the United States, Spain and Germany. While Nigeria has, thankfully, contained the spread, the others are still battling to get a handle on their own situation.

So far, the Ebola rage appears to have been viewed primarily from the perspective of human casualties. This is only natural in a world that places a high premium on human life. Nothing less could have been expected from a disease that reportedly claimed 121 lives in Sierra Leone in a single day - October 5 - besides recording scores of new infections. Perhaps, only Boko Haram, the terror group with an unquenchable appetite for savagery and sanguinary exploits, could have done better.

But closely linked to the Ebola deaths is the collateral damage to the economy of the affected states. The World Bank reckons that the West African economy could lose up to $33 billion if urgent steps are not taken to contain the rampant spread of the disease, which the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said could afflict over 1.4 million persons by January.

Until the outbreak, the economic outlook for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was on the upward swing, particularly for Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries rebounding from debilitating civil wars that had rendered their infrastructure either too weak or non-existent. The World Bank, which had earlier predicted a growth rate of 4.5 per cent for Guinea, 5.9 per cent for Liberia and 11.3 per cent for Sierra Leone, has been forced to revise the forecast downwards to 2.4 per cent, 2.5 per cent and 8 per cent respectively.

This has been due, in the main, to the fact that business activities have been badly hit by the killer disease. Many hitherto bustling shops now remain deserted, while marketplaces only boast empty stalls. Scheduled flights are being cancelled, even as hotels, lacking patrons, are forced to retrench. There have also been reports of cancelled investment trips as would-be investors would rather stay at home than risk the possibility of infection. Against the advice of the World Bank and WHO, some countries have imposed travel restrictions; Britain and the US have begun screening passengers entering their countries from West Africa.

The Associated Press captured the situation vividly, saying, 'The epidemic damages the economy directly. Commerce stops. The sick can't work. Contaminated areas close down. Tax collectors dry up. Health care costs swell, squeezing governments already struggling with expenses.' Reports say the only things that sell are pharmaceutical items meant to keep Ebola at bay. As the number of the sick and dead rises, engagement in farming is gradually giving way, especially with the growing need to keep interpersonal contacts very low. Assessing the situation, Peter Piot, the man who gave Ebola its name, in 1976, reportedly said, 'This isn't just an epidemic. This is (a) human catastrophe.'

Ebola is indeed an assault on mankind. For this reason, Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank Group, said, '… the international community must find ways to get past logistical roadblocks and bring in more doctors and trained medical staff, more hospital beds and more health and development support to help stop Ebola in its tracks.' When the medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, first warned in April that the epidemic was spreading at an unprecedented rate, WHO, of all organisations, countered, describing it as 'relatively small still.' If the response had come then, it would not have become what WHO now calls a public health emergency. The United Nations agency reckons that, by December, 10,000 new cases will be recorded every week.

In reaction to the call to action, responses have been coming from all and sundry, but they are still a drop in the ocean. Apart from a promise of $750 million, the US has sent in 3,000 troops to help fight Ebola. Britain has also pledged troops, money and equipment. The World Bank is committing $400 million to the cause.

But where are the Africans? Where is the African Union? Aside from the $3.5 million said to have been released by Nigeria, very little has been heard from other African countries. Instead of assistance, what they have done has been to try and lock out the disease by sealing up their borders. This is not right. This is a fight that can only be won collectively. No matter how small, Africans should also learn to give a helping hand. Only an early containment of Ebola can save West Africa from an impending economic disaster.