By the end of 2015, the outbreak of the Ebola virus had claimed 11,315 lives across Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the US, and Mali. Beyond the personal tragedies and the devastation of communities caused by the outbreak, economists are calculating the wider economic slowdown that affected the whole region.
Of the 16 countries in West Africa, only five were directly affected by the Ebola virus. Nevertheless, fears of the virus spreading resulted in damage to the hospitality and transport sectors, as Western media repeatedly referred to the Ebola epidemic as a “West African“ outbreak. Thanks to statutes within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), there is largely free and unimpeded movement of people and goods across the porous borders in the sub-region.
Even before the virus reached Nigeria, the e-commerce industry was reporting marked growth. Fear of contacting the virus through human contact meant that those anxious about mixing with large groups of people in supermarkets led to a growth in online purchases. Today, some argue that one of the more unusual reasons for the success of Nigerian e-commerce was the common fear of contracting Ebola.
As the epidemic spread, West African countries that host significant numbers of expatriate workers in critical sectors of the economy witnessed a mass movement of foreigners back to their home countries, with many expats at least electing to send their children to their nation of origin. The weak healthcare infrastructure of most countries in the region did not inspire great enough confidence among the expatriate population to remain, with some global companies evacuating non-essential foreign personnel as a matter of policy for the whole region.
Ghana had been declared Ebola free, yet it still witnessed expatriates leaving and a slowdown in tourism. Hotels and conference halls found that international conferences scheduled to take place in the country had to be postponed under the Ghanaian government’s directive that no international gathering take place in the country for the three months leading up to December 2014. The hospitality industry was hit hard, as hotel room occupancy rates fell from 70% to 50%. Laurent Ebzant of the Kempinski Hotel stated, “The business outlook now looks a lot better than it did in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak, which affected business negatively.“
Subhi Accad explained “We [Ghana] had bad luck with the Ebola outbreak, and unfortunately I blame the media for that because many people were frightened away from Ebola-free Ghana, as the news read ‘West Africa’.“
The government was proactive and put in place a range of mechanisms to ensure that it retained its Ebola free status, committing $2.18 million (GHC7 million) to fight the deadly virus. Despite this, when the UN responded by setting up the first-ever UN mission for a public health emergency, UNMEER, Accra volunteered to host the mission. The primary task of the new agency was to coordinate the UN mission’s vast resources to combat the epidemic under the technical leadership of the WHO.
The decision caused a great amount of unease, but led to a sense of solidarity among the region, with President Mahama himself visiting Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to give them the morale boost whilst presenting some relief items to these countries.
Ebola fears also damaged the ability of Ghanaians to travel. Hendrik Du Preez, Country Manager of Emirates, explained how he had seen cases of visas taking longer to process. “The Ghanaian passport was weakened by the Ebola outbreak; where it would normally take three to four days for a visa to be received, we saw examples of the process taking 21 days for visas to be released.“ Within the region, Nigeria’s largest domestic and regional airline, Arik Air, canceled flights to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Arik Air also stopped flights to Gambia and Cameroon following border restrictions from those countries. Many companies were losing revenue because of canceled daily flights connecting Ghana with Freetown and the connecting flights to Monrovia and Banjul. In an exclusive interview with TBY, CEO of Golden Palm Investments Sangu Delle discussed how he considered his company lucky in avoiding Ebola. Golden Palm had plans to expand its healthcare clinics into Liberia before the outbreak, plans which had to be put on hold. Despite the heavy and ongoing toll taken by Ebola, the crisis created an opportunity. Golden Palm Investments assisted with an app called “MHealth,“ which was key in helping contain the virus. Nigeria suffered just eight deaths due to the virus, a small figure compared to 4,809 in Liberia. Nigerian health officials attribute the success in containing the virus to the fast communication and instant tracking made possible by the use of mobile phone technology. According to the Ebola Emergency Operation Centre in Lagos, medical officers using the MHealth app reduced the reporting time of cases of the virus from 12 hours to six hours.
The total number of reported cases is estimated at 28,637. But on January 13, 2016, the World Health Organization declared the last of the countries affected, Liberia, to be officially Ebola free. The costs have yet to be totaled, but according to the UN Development Group, West Africa as a whole could lose an average of at least $3.6 billion per year between 2014 and 2017 due to a decrease in trade, closing of borders, flight cancellations, reduced FDI, and depressed tourism activity.