Zeytinoglu: Economic impact of Ebola shouldn’t be ignored


Ekin Zeytinoglu, Columnist

Everyday media coverage, extremely dismaying or overly understating social media posts and the circulation of “unknown” facts made Ebola a part of our daily routines. However, compared to other aspects, the economic impact of Ebola still remains a rather unexplored issue.

About a month ago, following the report released by World Bank, President Jim Yong Kim commented, “The primary cost of this tragic outbreak is in human lives and suffering, which has already been terribly difficult to bear.” If the disease keeps spreading at its current pace, it would be a “potentially catastrophic blow to the regions’ already fragile economies,” he said.

For various reasons, sub-Saharan countries have been generally struggling economically. The three core countries where Ebola is still a major threat to public welfare rank among the lowest for gross domestic product. They also have highly underdeveloped infrastructure and mostly unstable political states. However, after overcoming civil wars, in the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and mollifying social unrest in Guinea, these economies were on the rise in the last decade. Sadly this may not be true anymore.

With the occurrence of Ebola, those three countries have been experiencing a diminished labor force, abandoned lands and farms, a damaged tourism sector and embargoes as other countries close their borders to them. Besides those setbacks, events are being canceled, economic activities are slowing down, public panic is rising and trust in the governments is dwindling, all of which lead to loss of foreign investors, and therefore growth. According to the World Bank report, Sierra Leone lost the chance to achieve middle-income status, Guinea has seen huge losses in its agriculture industry and Liberia has been the worst affected country with vast declines in many industries.

A further study revealed that if the disease is not contained and necessary infrastructure is not established by 2015, the regional financial impact may add up to $32.6 billion. That is a doomsday theory but definitely is not far from becoming real. Such an impact would only mean farmers, mine workers and small-business owners, already living under any form of a living standard threshold, would become even poorer than they are. Health and transport systems would fail to develop, therefore putting thousands of more lives in jeopardy.

Recovery will be long since, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, many overseas firms “fail to distinguish between high and low risk areas and the whole of West Africa has suffered as a result.” Yet it is a process many organizations are contributing to and gradual recovery should be the goal by containing the disease without isolating countries by closing borders.

Nevertheless, another huge part of the real challenge will begin once the death toll decreases, economies reestablish themselves and panic vanishes. The issue with emergency-adjusted help is that the emergency abates no matter how worrisome it is at the moment. Once the danger disappears, so does all the media coverage, fundraising and workers providing aid in the region. The only reason Ebola received so much attention is probably because it threatened the western world in the first place. Emerging in March, the disease only managed to capture major recognition once western doctors offered their invaluable work in the infected countries, and a few tested positive for the virus.

Sub-Saharan problems, nonetheless, are not limited to Ebola. Ebola is a major threat to national healthcare and social welfare, but there are many other worrying problems in the region as well. While Ebola causes 1.35 deaths per 100,000 people, HIV, infant mortality, malaria, malnutrition and many others cause tens, if not hundreds, more.

The number of deaths in the United States due to HIV is 2.5 per 100,000, while it is 121 per 100,000 in the sub-Saharan countries. Surely underdeveloped infrastructure, elementary healthcare system and public poverty contributed to this difference greatly, but it also is true that we tend to turn a blind eye to similar situations when we can keep our indifference.

Ebola has been threatening the lives of thousands directly and indirectly through social and financial means, and therefore it should be dealt with immediately to avoid the catastrophic results the World Bank report has forecast. However, alienating ourselves from the rest of the Sub-Saharan problems, simply because they don’t influence us the same way, would be committing hypocrisy. We must consider that people in another part of the world are suffering under conditions we can prevent or at least ease. Ebola can be a turning point in recognizing that, or it can remain an isolated incident like many others have for decades.

Ekin Zeytinoglu is a McCormick sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].