It’s Not Over Yet: The Economic Impact of Ebola in Sierra Leone

A woman working in a field in Sierra Leone

An outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa that began in 2014 and has continued to the present day has rocked the world. Over 9,700 people have died and almost 24,000 have been infected since the beginning of the outbreak, mainly in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, and unexplained hemorrhaging; the virus is transmitted through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. In the areas where this outbreak has been focused, especially in Sierra Leone, Ebola has tended to spread due to burial rites which involve touching and washing the body of the deceased and therefore coming into contact with highly infectious bodily fluids.

As is usually the case in epidemics like this, the initial focus was on containing the disease and treating those who had already been infected, though there is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola. Organizations like Médicins Sans Frontieres were on the frontlines, setting up impromptu clinics to diagnose and treat those that had contracted the disease. Now, however, as the outbreak reaches the one year mark, the focus has shifted. Sierra Leone is currently attempting to assess the economic damages caused by the outbreak and figure out how to turn this negative growth around.

Almost immediately, the outbreak affected tourism. Though Sierra Leone hasn’t been one of the major tourist destinations for those visiting West Africa, this loss of revenue still affected the country. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the United Kingdom advised against all but essential travel to Sierra Leone, except for health workers involved in halting the disease. Many other countries, including the United States, have followed suit. This has led hotels and other tourist operations to shut down and lay off workers.

An aid worker in an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone disinfecting boots

However, the greatest impacts have been seen in other sectors. Those in quarantine for the disease were not able to plant crops and many farmers fled the disease. This is a huge problem considering that, in Sierra Leone, 2/3 of the population is involved in farming. Markets have been shut down due to fears that large gatherings of people could spread the disease faster, meaning that those who do grow crops have no way of selling them. Mining, which constitutes a large portion of the economies in affected countries, has been slowed or halted as foreign companies pull their workers out of affected areas.

Road blocks in Sierra Leone, put into place to stop the spread of the disease, have also made it difficult if not impossible to move goods and labourers around the country. This, in turn, further impacts upon the agricultural sector, with farmers planting far fewer crops. Unfortunately, this will cause a vicious cycle in which the shortage of crops generates food shortages and puts adverse pressure on food prices.

This disease was not just devastating for those who suffered through it or lost family members to it. On a much larger scale, the three countries affected lost at least $1.6 billion in economic growth this year, which amounts to over 12% of their combined gross domestic products. Sierra Leone alone accounts for over half of that loss at $920 million, while its economy is expected to contract by 2%.

The major fear now is that the virus will continue to spread. Though infections are being reported at a much lower rate than at the beginning of the crisis, there remain several avenues by which the disease could continue to disseminate. Liberia has just opened its borders, meaning that the already porous frontier regions could see new cases from Sierra Leone and Guinea enter the country. Another fear is that cases are being underreported and hidden from authorities.

However, Liberia has just released its last ebola patient. At the same time, Guinea and Sierra Leone have seen new cases drop to a tenth of what they were at the height of the crisis. In Sierra Leone, there have been around 75 new cases reported weekly, though that number is dropping slowly. There is a tentative hope that the epidemic may, in fact, be almost over.

Four boys carrying water in Sierra Leone

The issue which must now be addressed is that of how best to help the economies of three developing countries recover from this epidemic. The effects of the disease are expected to continue to have a large economic impact long after Ebola is eradicated, and the risk of a surge in cases and thus even harder hitting impacts is still high.

The leaders of the three affected countries met at an international conference in Brussels in early March to discuss how best to rebuild their economies. From this meeting, they have begun to urge the world to develop an aid plan along the lines of the Marshall Plan, which was implemented to help Europe recover from the effects of World War II.

Whether their urgings will encourage other countries to step up with aid and development money remains to be seen. No one knows exactly how to rebuild after catastrophe. But the world cannot and must not turn its back on these countries in their time of need and, in our interconnected global society, must help them recover in order to boost the worldwide economy.

The author, Emma Middleton, and her partner, Marlene Paradee, are implementing community-driven sustainable agricultural projects in Sierra Leone this summer as part of their commitment through Clinton Global Initiatives University 2015.

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