Ebola’s scare factor

The economic effects of contagious, incurable, fatal diseases are well known. During the avian flu epidemic in Asia about 10 years ago, restaurants were empty, and foreign investors and travellers avoided the region.

In the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak, which killed about 800 people, economic losses ran to an estimated $40 billion (R440 billion).  So far, Ebola has more than 4 500 lives. According to the WHO, that figure could reach one million in three months. Newspapers have reported on people fleeing Sierra Leone, Liberia and the DRC. Apparently, some are headed for South Africa.

Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has warned against sensationalist media reports causing unfounded panic amongst South Africans. He told the Sunday Independent that South Africa was too far away for most people to reach by land, and if they were carrying the disease, the chances that they would make it to the border alive were slim. And he is confident that the only other way into the country – the airlines – is sufficiently monitored.

However, a commercial pilot who phoned into a radio chat show was not so confident. According to him, equipment used at airports to screen for this disease is defective nine times out of 10. The minister does have a point regarding scaremongering; panic will most certainly affect South Africa’s trade and tourism as the disease creeps closer. But a little panic now might be needed to prevent disaster later. Certainly, world leaders are taking note of the disease’s possible global impact.

The USA is sending 4 000 troops to Liberia to help with the distribution of supplies, and is contributing $175 million towards the fight against Ebola. China has committed $34 million. South Africa has sent medical personnel, a mobile lab, and scooters. The rest of Africa is doing what it can.

At this stage, it does not matter who is helping, as long as assistance is on its way. The disease’s impact is catastrophic and its potential impact, should it not be contained, is almost apocalyptic. As it is, harvests in Sierra Leone are predicted to fall by 30%. Agriculture contributes 57% of Sierra Leone’s GDP, 39% of Liberia’s and 20% of Guinea’s. These economies have come to a standstill, as people are afraid to venture out of their homes. Thai rice exporters cannot find sailors willing to man the ships – brimming with the African staple – destined for the affected countries. How long until other imports are affected?

One can only pray that in a few months from now, the world will look back on the pandemic and think about the lessons learned. For South Africa, a lesson we can learn even now is the importance of ensuring local food production, and not relying overly on imports. Threats to this are not always as obvious as a deadly, untreatable, infectious disease.