With nearly 40 countries closing their borders to citizens of Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa, Ambassador Bockari Kortu Stevens of Sierra Leone encapsulated well the sentiments expressed by five diplomats from the region in Atlanta yesterday: “To all who stigmatize us, I would say, ‘Ban Ebola; don’t ban our countries.’”
While they had gathered to talk about investment, it was clear that they viewed the outbreak as having blindsided economies that were otherwise poised for steady growth after emerging from civil wars and political turmoil.
The World Bank estimated Oct. 8 that the outbreak had already shaved a combined total of $359 million from the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and that it could slash growth in the hardest-hit country, Liberia, by up to 12 percent.
Before the outbreak began in April 2013, Sierra Leone was one of the top six fastest-growing economies in Africa, Mr. Stevens said during a plenary session hosted by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta at the U.S. Commerce Department‘s two-day Discover Global Markets event highlighting Africa in Atlanta.
“With the onset of the pandemic, everything else had to be shut down and geared toward fighting Ebola,” he said, adding that while his country is grateful for foreign aid, it came in only after the fight had already severely harmed the economy.
Jeremiah Sulunteh, Liberia’s ambassador, said his country of 4 million people was similarly caught off guard, having emerged relatively recently from a brutal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands.
With little infrastructure investment, the country hasn’t been able to convert foreign investment into jobs for Liberians, and all its institutions have suffered, especially the health care system. A poignant example mentioned by the ambassador: Liberia is home to second largest rubber plantation in the world, but people are dying of Ebola in part for lack of rubber gloves.
“Out of nowhere, we were attacked by Ebola. I’m talking about a health system where you have one doctor for every 35,000 citizens, one dentist for every 90,000 people,” he said, noting that the country only had 17 ambulances. “We didn’t even know where to start.”
Mr. Sulunteh appealed for the U.S. and other countries to keep sending help – 3,000 U.S. troops are now on the ground help fight the virus – but he also implored them to keep open their borders open.
“Inasmuch as we appreciate the support that the international community has given us, we feel that you should help us isolate Ebola but do not isolate us. When I speak to people and say I’m the Liberian ambassador, they say, ‘Oh?!’” Mr. Sulunteh said, mimicking the motion of moving back in disgust. “My name is Jeremiah; I’m not Ebola. We should never be defined by Ebola.”
Nigeria was able to contain the virus within its own borders after it had infected more than 30 people, garnering praise from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its use of screening at airports and tracking of patients’ contacts.
“The war is not over. We are still not resting on our laurels,” said Ambassador Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye.
Now Ebola-free, Nigeria resumed flights to the affected countries to keep them connected to its own economy of 170 million people, the largest in Africa. Mr. Adefuye used a Nigerian proverb to express concern for its bordering countries: If your neighbor is unwell, his cries will keep you awake at night.
“We are not sleeping well. I want to sleep well,” he said, noting that Nigeria has donated $3 million in medical aid and sent its own medical personnel to assist in the region.
He framed the need for U.S. support in tackling Ebola in terms of the overall peace and security architecture of the continent, saying that to ignore West Africa would be to invite catastrophe.
“Don’t write us off, because the world is a global village,” he said.
He added that it’s “not reasonable” to ban travelers from the affected countries. While the U.S. borders are still open, screening at airports including Atlanta’s has been stepped up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the CDC.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in late October piled on even more intense measures that would require any traveler from the affected countries exhibiting Ebola symptoms to be quarantined for 21 days at a “designated facility,” which could be a hospital or a patient’s home. As of Oct. 31, no one screened in Georgia has been subject to isolation.
Representatives of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, also unscathed by the outbreak so far, have taken the same view as Nigeria, providing donations and logistical support to prevent the spread of the virus.
“In my country, we say, ‘When the house of your neighbor is burning, you should give your assistance,’” said Cote D’Ivoire Ambassador Daouda Diabate.
All the ambassadors were heartened by recent news that the rate of new cases is starting to slow in Liberia.
“We are very happy to notice that the curve is going downward. We are all hoping that his downward curve will continue to put Ebola not only out of these countries but also out of our region and out of Africa,” Mr. Diabate said.
While Ebola dominated the early discussion, it segued into a look at the countries’ investment priorities both to aid in short-term recovery and to set themselves up for longer-term stability.
Ebenezer Padi Adjirackor, trade minister at the Ghanaian embassy standing in for his ambassador, said his country is looking for outside investment in the oil and gas sector, as well as in public housing, where the country faces a massive shortage. He added that anything that can help reduce post-harvest losses in agriculture would also be welcome. While “Nigeria is more than oil,” the privatization of the national petroleum company provides opportunities for U.S. firms, long present in Nigeria, to make up for what they missed out on when they failed to challenge other companies in prior telecommunications auctions, Mr. Adefuye said. “Those companies will tell you that they have never made such a profit in such a short time in their lives,” he said, adding that power generation equipment and manufacturing are other hot sectors as Nigeria seeks to shift away from oil-led exports.
“Those companies will tell you that they have never made such a profit in such a short time in their lives,” Mr. Adefuye said, adding that power generation equipment and manufacturing are other hot sectors as Nigeria seeks to shift away from oil-led exports.
Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer, is also seeking to boost productivity in the agricultural sector, even as it builds out its technology scene. Some 20 million of the country’s 24 million people have cell phones, said Mr. Diabate, who pointed out the the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has a market of 300 million people.
“We want to make an appeal to our American investors to be present in that huge population that is in our region,” he said.
Mr. Stevens of Sierra Leone emphasized that small and medium-sized could find success in his country, doing good for it in the process.
“We are not asking for charity, but we are appealing to small-scale industries,” such as canneries to keep cashew crops from going to waste during the wet season, he said.
In Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847, citizens are wondering when their ties with the United States will begin to yield fruit, creating jobs for Liberians in the manufacturing sector instead of just extracting minerals and forestry products, leaving the country with some of the highest energy prices and the need to import even the cheapest goods.
“What the ordinary Liberians have been asking me is, ‘When are the American investors coming?’” Mr. Sulunteh said.
Judging by the feelings expressed at the event, both African and American officials hope it’s sooner rather than later.