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Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the Ebola outbreak will cost the sub-Saharan Africa economy about $3 billion to $4 billion, well below a previously outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. But some economists paint a gloomier picture, warning the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable.

Fields of potatoes stretch to the horizon in Timbi-Madina, central Guinea. But the farmers there have no idea if they will be able to sell their crop. The Ebola epidemic is strangling the industry as borders with neighboring countries are closed.

Mamadou Diallo from the local farmers’ federation is worried.

“There are no plans to open the borders, and the internal market is not booming, everything is blocked,” he said. “So how long do we stock products for? And what price will be able to sell them at in the future?”

In the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, the prices of basic goods are rising. Mohamed Kamara is a wholesale trader there.

He says that most of the bulk buyers who come from the provinces are not coming to town due to Ebola, because their areas have been quarantined. So the prices right now are very high.

In Sierra Leone, 80 percent of the population works in agriculture and there has been a sharp decline in activity, says Professor Jonathan Leape, executive director of the International Growth Center at the London School of Economics.

“The food prices have not shown the kind of spikes that would have happened had there been shortages." he said. "What is not so good as a picture is what is happening to the level of trading and employment in these markets. There’s been a 69 percent drop in rice traders. That’s suggesting that employment and trading and buying and selling activity is dropping quite significantly.”

Companies hit hard

Multinational companies are also hit. British extraction company London Mining was already suffering from plunging iron ore prices. Several workers were removed from the company’s mine in Sierra Leone because of Ebola. This month the firm declared bankruptcy.

The mining sector is vital to Sierra Leone’s economy, says Alhaji Jalloh, president of the Sierra Leone Importers Association.

“Importation has been grounded to a halt; in fact exportation now is virtually zero. Our mining companies [have] closed down, most of them,” said Jalloh.

It is rarely necessary for companies in Ebola-affected regions to completely cease operations, says Dr. Katie Geary, medical director of the assistance group International SOS.

“What we are trying to get them to balance is the tension between business continuity and delivering the key economic requirements of that company, versus the safeguarding of their employees," she said. "Identifying the key people out there, making sure there’s education, making the work environment as safe as possible in the context of Ebola.”

When the epidemic is brought under control, the international community must help revive the region’s economy, says Leape.

“These countries will have a great need to re-launch their economies," he said. "And part of that means being very open and supportive of increasing international trade, but also taking measures that enhance and kick-start domestic trade.”

The human cost of Ebola is clear, more than 5,000 deaths to date. Analysts warn the international community must help avert an economic disaster.