How much of a threat is Ebola?

Ebola outbreaks in several west African countries have forced two heads of state to pull out of a historic US-Africa summit this week, a reminder of the challenges faced in trying to reshape perceptions of the continent, says Drew Hinshaw in The Wall Street Journal.

Africa is home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, yet “weak government, military and public-health institutions” expose the vulnerabilities of even some of the most “hopeful economies”.

Sierra Leone, whose president Ernest Bai Koroma is one of the leaders who stayed home to deal with the Ebola epidemic, is a “prime example”. The country’s economy had been growing at 13.8% this year, but the government has put workers on forced leave and banned public gatherings in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease.

The other VIP who has cancelled her trip to the US is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, where 255 people have died. Liberia has closed all but major border crossings and many of the international mining firms there have imposed travel restrictions on workers and are evacuating non-essential staff from the region, says CNN.

Investment and cross-border commerce is slowing and Emirates and British Airways have both suspended flights because of the virus. According to Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, the “scare factor” permeating the economy will have a much bigger effect than the “hygiene issues themselves”.

Although there is no proven treatment and no vaccine for Ebola, the argument for developing a vaccine is more “moral” than “economic”, according to Jones. The virus has hit some of West Africa’s most vulnerable economies and poorest rural areas, but there is an argument that the money would be better spent on improving infrastructure.

The Times’s Matt Ridley agrees with Jones, and says that development is key. Ebola is “very unlikely to cause a global pandemic”, because it is “too quick, too virulent, too easy to contain for its own good”; with reasonable precautions it “fizzles out fast”.

Liberia and Sierra Leone are two of only six countries in the world whose average per-capita income is lower today than it was 50 years ago, and that is why they are “so vulnerable to this epidemic”.

The sooner we engage more of the citizens of these countries in the global economy, so that they can get jobs in urban areas, pay for decent health care and stop eating bush meat, the better.

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