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Ebola’s latest victim – the economy

South Africa may have closed its borders to foreigners from Ebola-impacted countries, but few other impacts are being felt from the virus currently ravaging West Africa. No cases have been confirmed, although several people have been put under precautionary observation before being released.

In Sierra Leone the case is different, with the repercussions radiating from far-flung villages to financial markets.

When his neighbours began ­falling ill with Ebola, Sheikh Kallon felt fortunate that he was well enough to continue tending his farm deep in Sierra Leone’s forested interior. Then one of his drinking buddies died of the disease, and Kallon’s entire family was quarantined for 21 days.

“I called my workers and asked them to keep going to the farm, but they said they don’t want to touch money from my hands in case they get Ebola,” said Kallon.

With his crops rotting in the fields, Kallon now spends his days sitting with his family on their porch as soldiers stand around enforcing the quarantine. The soldiers hardly need bother: lifelong neighbours are too terrified to approach, and a few kilometres down a nearby forest track, an entire community that has been unable to trade has run out of salt.

Rural farmers like Kallon in Sierra Leone’s lush hinterland – whose rice, cocoa and cassava fields account for nearly half the nation’s gross domestic product – are among the hardest hit in the economic fallout of the world’s biggest Ebola epidemic.

The repercussions of the epidemic have radiated from these remote villages to the country’s financial markets, prompting cutbacks by multinational firms whose revenues had previously spurred double-digit growth and allowed Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to painstakingly rebuild their war-shattered economies over the past decade.

Shares plunge
Three-quarters of Sierra Leone’s 20% economic growth last year was fuelled by the mining industry. Foreign companies such as London Mining, in which the commodities giant Glencore has an offtake agreement, had planned to treble yields in a decade.

But London Mining’s shares plunged by 19% after the company reduced forecasts in part because of the Ebola crisis this year. The British firm has now moved some workers from Sierra Leone. Commercial banks have slashed working hours to minimise contact with clients.

The World Food Programme is scaling up its operations to provide food to about a million people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone at a cost of $70-million. Sierra Leone has asked the global body to “consider significantly upscaling supplies even for nonquarantined communities”, according to a United Nations source.

The impact has spread thousands of miles to African countries that have never recorded an Ebola death, revealing how many outsiders’ ­tendencies to see the continent as a single entity may stigmatise all of Africa.

Investment summits have been cancelled as far afield as Namibia, a country almost 4?800km from the epidemic’s epicentre, and West African athletes were banned from competing in some Youth Olympics events this month. Korean Air scrapped flights to Kenya, a regional hub that has not recorded any Ebola cases in this outbreak.

“Beyond a health crisis, we’re looking at a whole range of ­knock-on effects,” said David McLachlan-Karr, UN country co-ordinator for Sierra Leone.

“The single biggest concern is the longer-term impact on ­development aspirations, which is premised on high foreign investment and high earnings.” Officials in Sierra Leone have trimmed growth forecasts as money is diverted into tackling the crisis.

Rising costs
Even before being quarantined, Kallon, the farmer, was having difficulties. A state of emergency meant more than two dozen checkpoints had sprung up between Kailahun and Freetown, eight hours’ drive away.

With fewer farmers travelling, the cost of farm produce doubled in a matter of weeks, said Umaru Barry, a sharply dressed trader selling smartphones in the capital’s hilly streets.

Barry’s own trade has been suffering. “We sell expensive phones and mainly foreigners would buy them, but now they’ve all left the country,” he said of the phones that retail at around $700. “I used to sell two phones a week but since the emergence of this thing I can only brag of selling four or five phones [altogether].”

Perhaps the biggest sign of the deepening financial ills is the silence of Freetown’s black-market “dollar boys”. In a country where banks are unable to meet demand for hard currency, their piercing cries of “Pounds! Dollars! Euros!” have long drawn everyone from petty traders to multinationals, and are a reliable gauge of financial health.

“There’s no business any more,” said John Moriba, a dollar boy ­sitting glumly beside a bucket of chlorinated water in which he regularly dips his hands to kill the Ebola virus. “Normally I have a lot of people calling, but today it’s 3pm and nobody has come yet. Before Ebola, that was never possible.”

Many of his clients included dealers who bought goods cheaply in neighbouring Guinea before reselling them at home, but closed borders have stopped intercountry trade.

Moriba is less worried about Ebola itself than the negative perceptions.

“We heard that even if you have Ebola you can sit next to somebody; just don’t touch. So I don’t know what all this trouble is about,” he said.

Although it kills with gruesome speed, Ebola can only be passed on if bodily fluid from affected patients enters mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose or mouth.

Other telltale signs of a slowdown litter the capital. Freetown’s only sushi restaurant now sells chicken sandwiches, as its Chinese fish ­suppliers have packed up shop. In one popular hotel, where 34 bedrooms overlook a stunning stretch of bay, only eight rooms were filled.

This month, British Airways and Kenya Airways banned flights to both Sierra Leone and Liberia.

In South Africa there has been little panic. A few people have been monitored, but no confirmed cases have been picked up. The only ban is on non-citizens from Ebola areas entering the country.

Thermal scanners have been installed at international airports, to detect anyone entering the country who might have symptoms.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has said there is no need to panic as “extremely effective” surveillance is in place and any suspected case would be rapidly dealt with”. – ©?Guardian News & Media 2014. 

Additional reporting by Sipho Kings

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