The Ebola hit countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, with support from external partners are engrossed with the urgent and complex issues relating to adequacy of the resources, preventing infection and saving lives. Sadly the coverage of the Outbreak by the international media has inadvertently produced the perception and mischaracterization of the region as a no-go area. There is therefore a growing stigmatization of nationals and travellers, and goods and services to and from the region. The evolving nature and form of this could have disastrous economic consequences that go way beyond the sub-region, and could return the three countries to poverty levels prevalent during the earlier conflicts and periods of instability. All three countries plus Nigeria must take a concerted action now to nuance if not change the image of the region as being a no-go area. And in this they need the support of the international community.
There is insufficient emphasis and clarification on the methods of transmission of the disease. The prevalent impression is that it is easily transmitted as in the case of influenza. In fact it is transmitted through bodily fluids (similar to HIV) and is not contagious unless the patient is displaying symptoms. This explains, partly, why Ebola occurred three times in Uganda but did not deteriorate into an epidemic. In the case of the current three countries, failure to contain the spread was due to weaknesses in the health system; and this is now being addressed. Worse some statements by WHO including publicly warning that Kenya was at high risk of transmission because of flights to West Africa tended to feed the hysteria and had very damaging consequences. Tourists responded by canceling trips to Kenya and countries as far away as South Africa. Kenya responded by cancelling flights to the affected countries.
The suspension of flights to and from the region feeds into the media-generated hysteria. There is hardly any mention made of the steps taken to prevent the spread by the potential carriers before travelling, including through taking the temperature of all exiting travelers. With the exception of Nigeria, there has been no other case of infection by others of carriers from the sub-region: suspected cases have proved negative.Yet some airlines have cancelled flights and reportedly, Cote d’Ivoire has imposed a ban of ships berthing in any of the ports in the affected countries unless 21 days have elapsed.
These acts are tantamount to a trade and personnel embargo that will have far-reaching economic effects. Examples include:
· Cancellation of new investments or expansions of operations of large mines;
· Drastic cuts in tourism – already observed in S. Africa
· Shortages of spare parts and other imported goods
· Cancellation of meetings in the sub-region – already done by certain organisations
· Non-participation of nationals in international forums of economic, political and social importance, even sports events Potentially a shortage of fuel which could have devastating consequences
Governments of the three countries plus Nigeria should act now in changing the image created by the media including social media, and should not shy of getting support from major news channels for this.
The announcement by Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea of embargoes could be the start of a domino effect that will have far-reaching repercussions for the continent.