By Rafiq Raji
Last week in London, I overhead someone saying with derision: “who gives a sh*t about Ebola?” He then picked up the phone to call his wife and kids. He is French, I could tell from the accent. I bet he would not have been so flippant if his loved ones were at risk of the epidemic. I doubt Ebola would be another issue to analyze and engage in jocular banter about if his friends and compatriots were falling sick, dying and not having the dignity of a proper burial. And maybe my French friend should not feel too safe about Ebola. But before I go up in arms against the French, I’m reminded that the one organization that has been really selfless in helping deal with this Ebola outbreak is French. Well, at least the French founded it. The international community should take a cue from Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Hitherto, the international response has been slow and not proactive. Some of the measures now being taken could have been implemented much earlier when the outbreak was still in its infancy. On Friday 07 September 2014, the United Nations (UN) announced plans to set up a crisis center to co-ordinate the global response. Couldn’t this have been done much sooner? The Ebola outbreak became a crisis of significance in May. Some would argue much more proactive steps should have been taken as early as March when authorities in affected countries started being upfront about cases. In any case, it is not too late to change the tone of the global response.
*Relatively recent flu outbreaks. The fatalities of much earlier influenza epidemics were higher. The “Spanish flu” killed 50-70 million people in 1918. Forty years later, in 1957-58, the “Asian flu” killed 2 million people.
The international business community with interests in Ebola-affected countries has also been relatively mute about the outbreak. They have not provided as much charitable donations as they should. Those with influential voices have not lent their influence towards helping ease fears and knee-jerk reactions that exacerbate the economic costs to these countries. Airliners and shippers who make substantial revenues from the region have also not been creative in their precautionary steps. I mean, if such crucial supply chain actors decide not to fly or ship to these countries, how else then would help reach those in need? The French government advised a major French airliner to suspend flights to Sierra Leone in August. As I recall, they didn’t contemplate such steps during the Asian 2002-03 SARS (774 deaths) and 2009 swine flu (284,500 deaths) outbreaks. What airlines did was to ask for “fit-to-fly” certificates. While that may be difficult in the African case in light of its weak health infrastructure, there are creative and effective alternatives. Ebola screening can be done inexpensively at ports. For example, one German shipper – you have to admire the Germans! – has taken a much more reasonable step. It increased its rates to include costs for Ebola screening of cargo and passengers. That makes more sense, I think. More importantly, institutions that have been doing business on the continent for decades – more than a century for some – have a social responsibility towards the people that have helped their businesses flourish all these years. Fear and panic would be reduced when reputable institutions provide objective assessments and advice on the outbreak. Consequently, these reduce the economic costs to the affected countries.
A recurring question from the international business community remains about the quantification of these economic costs for countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. These are countries that were hitherto on a rebound on the back of mineral wealth – mostly iron ore. The African Development Bank (AfDB) thinks GDP growth reductions could be in the range of 1-4ppt for these countries. Other economic costs are related to inflation on the back of supply chain disruptions. Quoting AfDB President Donald Kaberuka’s remarks to Reuters on 27 August 2014: “Revenues are down, foreign exchange levels are down, markets are not functioning, airlines are not coming in, projects are being cancelled, business people have left – that is very, very damaging.” I doubt the current economic situation could be better put than that. But then, is it the Ebola virus disease that is really responsible for all these or fear and panic by the international business community? As at 05 September 2014, there were 1,146 confirmed Ebola cases in Sierra Leone. That is just 0.02% of its 6 million population! If we even assume the WHO worst-case scenario of 20,000 cases for all three countries combined, that would still just be 0.09% of the combined 21.6 million populations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. To be fair to business, most of the prevailing analyses of the crisis have been alarmist, incompetent even. To ease international business fears, more reputable institutions should lend their voices to the crisis like the AfDB has done. On Friday, 06 September 2014, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon did just that, urging airlines and shipping companies not to suspend operations to affected countries. Quoting the UNSG: “Banning flights and shipping services will not keep Ebola from spreading, but it will keep medical teams from reaching people most in need…stigma and rumour can do just as much damage as the virus itself. It is crucial to remember that Ebola can be avoided and controlled.” For fellow Africans, I’ll simply say: this one too will pass.
Views are mine and not of any institution(s) I may be affiliated with.