Along came a virus and hauled three nations out of recovery

Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea had all been shaking off recent unstable histories until Ebola decimated mining production, halted economic recovery and sent it back into reverse

Freetown

Sandi Sesay’s boss promised him three months’ pay when he told the driver to stop coming to work. The goal was to prevent any possible spread of the Ebola virus at the Sierra Leone mine that employs him.

Two weeks later, Mr Sesay, 29, has yet to see any money from Dawnus Construction, a contractor at London Mining’s Marampa iron-ore deposit. “I take care of my mother, my sisters and my wife and three children,” he said. “How am I going to cope?”

The prospects for both Mr Sesay and Sierra Leone were bright before the outbreak. The economy was set to grow  14 per cent, almost three times faster than the average in sub- Saharan Africa. In Liberia and Guinea, investment in iron ore was luring billions of dollars and fuelling growth.

Then the first case of Ebola appeared in December. Initially tagged as a short-term phenomenon, the disease now threatens to cripple three economies with a combined gross domestic product of about $13bn (£8bn) – less than that of Afghanistan.

Commodity companies are slowing production and airlines are shutting routes. In Liberia, the Government says the economic impact threatens to derail progress made since the end of the civil war in 2003.

The Malaysian group Sime Darby, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has slowed production in Liberia, while Sifca Group halted rubber output from its plant there. ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steel maker, postponed expansion plans at its iron-ore mine in northern Liberia because contractors moved some of their workers out of the country. London Mining’s shares fell nearly a fifth this week after it reduced its 2014 forecast, in part because of Ebola’s impact.

Richard Evans, a spokesman at Dawnus, based in Swansea, said this was the first he’d heard of anyone not being paid, adding that a “large number” of non-essential staff had been asked not to come to work while getting basic pay.

Africa’s richest man, the Nigerian cement magnate Aliko Dangote, has pulled some employees out of his Liberia cement plant and says one percentage point of growth may be shaved off the region that includes Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Liberia has banned public gatherings and told non-essential government workers to stay home. In Sierra Leone, the Government sent hundreds of troops to cordon off the hardest-hit areas. Edmond Saidu, the district agriculture officer in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun District, says the disease killed farmers on cocoa and peanut plantations and rice farms, leaving the crops to rot. Liberia has also closed off afflicted regions.

The Liberian Government is even planning to close open-air markets – a measure that will probably push up prices in the capital. At the crowded Duala market in central Monrovia, a 17-year-old food seller called Mary Kolubah said business had slowed. The wholesale shop where she obtains bags of rice in order to resell them in smaller, paper-wrapped quantities raised prices 10 per cent in just a few days, she said.

Nearby, meat seller Amadu Bah, 46, sat idle at his empty stall. Cattle traders have stopped importing cows from Guinea and Sierra Leone because the beasts must cross through infected areas, he said. “I’m out of business now because selling cow meat is the only thing I’ve known since I was 25 years old.”

Distrust of government in the three countries runs so deep that officials are still struggling to convince citizens that Ebola isn’t a hoax. The virus exposed limitations in  the healthcare systems that include a scarcity of doctors and thermometers, a shortage of body bags that prevents burials, and medical workers neglecting basic hygiene.

The official tally of deaths may underestimate the extent to which the disease has spread, the UN’s health agency said last week. More than 1,200 people have died in the three countries and five have succumbed in Nigeria, although Africa’s largest economy has so far managed to avoid a wider outbreak.

The disease struck just as the three smaller countries were starting to bounce back from a past of violence and instability. Liberia is recovering from a civil war that spilled into its neighbour Sierra Leone in the 1990s, leaving both economies ruined. In 2010, Guinea, the world’s biggest bauxite exporter, held its first democratic elections since independence after decades of erratic military rule.

Isolating the affected areas in Sierra Leone has made it almost impossible to get food to the capital. The UN’s food aid agency says it will need to feed 5 per cent of the population of the three countries in the coming months.

The past few months mark the first time that the disease, identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, has killed anyone in West Africa. The virus lives naturally in fruit bats and other wild animals. Humans get it from the animal’s secretions and pass it on to other humans through bodily fluids.

The outbreak is isolating the countries. Nigeria’s Arik Air suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone after a Liberian man travelled by plane to Lagos and infected at least eight others with the disease after he collapsed at the airport.

British Airways and Kenya Airways also halted routes to Liberia and Sierra Leone, while Gulf carrier Emirates scrapped flights to Guinea.

“It’s not just that international flights are cancelled and movement of people is restricted because of the quarantine measures,” said the political analyst Lansana Gberie. “There’s also a disabling psychological atmosphere that isn’t conducive to productivity.”

Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia will need about six more months to turn the outbreak around, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. By then, the effects of the health emergency will have spread further, into oil prices – the three countries import all their oil – food costs and lost iron-ore production.

Residents of the hilly streets overlooking the Gulf of Guinea in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, spend their days at home, worrying about rising food and fuel prices.

Fatmata Edna Njai, 35, a hotel receptionist, said she was dumbfounded when her employer handed her an envelope with the equivalent of a third of her monthly salary two weeks ago, and told her to stay away until the virus  was contained. She now stays with her son, parents and three relatives inside their apartment and says she’s run out of money. “I’m praying and I’m fasting so that God will provide me a job.”

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