JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - An Ebola victim who traveled to the United States and a case of contagion in Europe have triggered a global frenzy to act. While Africa welcomes a real international response at last, there are also fears the reaction may be more damaging than the disease.
No one can minimize the horror of the daily deaths and suffering in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as the silent but aggressive sickness wipes out families and communities, nor the health risk the virus poses to an interconnected global village.
But Africans at many levels are bristling at an unfocused and lop-sided view of the health emergency they say ignores geography, distorts reality and will set back the real development advances made by a continent in the last decade.
“Hysteria and panic, I see, are really more contagious than the disease itself,” said economist Carlos Lopes from Guinea-Bissau, who heads the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.
With some U.S. politicians clamoring for a quarantining of Africa after a Liberian traveler - who died this week - brought the disease to the United States, Lopes, along with other economists, politicians and business leaders, is worried that Sub-Saharan Africa will face blanket Ebola “stigmatization”.
The vision of Africa held by investors and tourists had been brightening. The region, its one billion people and natural riches, was starting to be seen as a promising beacon of growth. Old stereotypes of a dark continent of poverty, conflict and pestilence were starting to be left behind.
Now however the epidemic - in three small countries of the continent’s western corner that together represent just one percent of Africa’s economy - threatens to hurt that progress.
“There are two epidemics - the health epidemic and the epidemic of fear,” said Mark Weinberger, global chairman and CEO of business services firm Ernst & Young, which has tracked Africa’s increasing attractiveness to investors in recent years.
The World Bank warned this week that besides the severe damage to the epicenter economies of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - the latter two will see their GDP growth halved - West Africa as a sub-region could lose around $32 billion and even more than $40 billion if the Ebola emergency spreads to larger neighboring economies like Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
The bank said that to avoid disruption to transportation, cross-border trade, supply chains and tourism in West Africa, remedial efforts needed to focus not just on “containing the epidemic” but also “mitigating aversion behavior”.
In World Bank-speak, “aversion behavior” means knee-jerk panic reaction - flight and tourism cancellations, postponed business trips and meetings and shelved investment decisions, border closures, transport and travel curbs - which could multiply the economic damage of the Ebola epidemic.
“The impact is being felt all across Africa,” Abdul Tejan-Cole, a Sierra Leonean who is executive director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, told Reuters.
Weinberger said the irrational fear factor could slow investment decisions about Africa and expressed concern that the World Bank’s impact projection could become self-fulfilling.
“They are describing a worst-case scenario that may or may not happen,” he told Reuters.
Ebola could have “dramatic consequences” for West Africa if it spreads, the International Monetary Fund acknowledged this week in its World Economic Outlook. But it maintained a bright forecast for Sub-Saharan Africa’s prospects overall.
Forecasting the region’s growth would accelerate to 5.8 percent next year from a buoyant 5.1 percent this year and in 2013, the IMF said: “The outlook is expected to remain favorable for the lion’s share of the region’s countries.”
It’s a broader perspective that Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, thinks should be kept at the forefront.
She bridles at what she terms sloppy media reporting about the epidemic, which she says unfairly paints the whole of West Africa, and the wider continent, with the same toxic brush.
“There is a danger. People are really scared of Ebola. We must manage the views on it properly,” Okonjo-Iweala said on the sidelines of an FT Africa Summit 2014 in London.
She and others believe the media and experts should focus less on worst case scenarios and more on examples of success in containing Ebola. For example Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and biggest economy, appears to have checked its own small outbreak that was imported by a sick Liberian.
Senegal has also contained a similar imported outbreak.
In the Ebola hot zones of Liberia and Sierra Leone, reactions are torn between welcoming the increased international attention and rejecting its Doomsday focus.
“They’ve splattered photos of hopeless patients lying on the floor without showing any respect for their dignity as human beings,” said Ibrahim Kamara from Makeni in Sierra Leone.
Obsessive Western media cover of the United States and Spanish cases - so few in comparison with daily death tolls in West Africa - also prompts fierce objections.
But others believe it will at least keep the world focused on fighting the epidemic.
“The more they delay, the more bad it becomes for the world. Ebola has no boundary, it goes anywhere and attacks anytime,” said Richard Kemokai, a social worker in Liberia.
Additional reporting by Umaru Fofana in Freetown, David Lewis in Dakar, Karin Strohecker in London, Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, and Alphonso Toweh in Washington; Editing by Sophie Walker