The Ebola Outbreak: Beyond the Direct Victims

By Laura Lyons

 

The recent outbreak of Ebola, which began in Guinea in December of 2013, has extended to different countries in West Africa. To date, there have been more than 6,200 cases, of which, 2,900 have been fatal. However, the WHO has stated that the virus could infect up to 20,000 people; a worrisome figure if one considers that Ebola is fatal in 90 percent of cases, and a cure for the disease has not been found yet, while current treatment centers on alleviating symptoms and curing the secondary effects of the virus.

To date, the international community has only considered the direct victims of Ebola, leaving to the side that this epidemic has – and for several years will continue to have –  secondary effects, as in the affected countries the measures taken to combat the illness have not been effective and have even been counterproductive, seriously impacting their economies.

One must consider that confronting an epidemic incountry with a strong economy, which will not be as affected by measures taken to combat it, and has the capacity to isolate infected persons, is not the same as confronting such a serious and contagious disease in countries that have historically had a very low level of development combined with weak economies, where these illnesses can have catastrophic effects, both direct and indirect. Let’s consider some of these effects:

Isolation

At the national level, governments have imposed measures to avoid the propagation of the illness. For example, the government of Liberia imposed a quarantine in West Point during several weeks, a suburb of approximately 70,000 people. This measure has been questioned, as it increased food scarcity and the price of basic goods, and prevented thousands of people from working. Additionally, the measure facilitated the propagation of the illness, as it confined a large amount of the population to an area with terrible sanitation and health conditions.

At the international level, various states prohibited the entry of people from countries affected by Ebola, and even prevented flights from travelling to such country, including flights with the goal of humanitarian assistance for victims of Ebola.

Economy

Recently, the World Bank highlighted that Ebola could cost affected countries billions of dollars, which could reduce their economic growth by up to 11.7 percent, as in the case of Liberia. This predicted cost is principally the result of fear of infection, rather than the cost of treating the illness itself, as there have been serious economic consequences for the reduction in tourism, trade with other countries and support of foreign investors.

Within affected countries, the country is also suffering the consequences of Ebola, according to the FAO. According to this organization, the next harvest season is at risk in the areas affected by the illness, due to the scarcity of laborers and the increase in the price of food, created by the lack of production and commercialization of food products.

Other illnesses

In spite of the large number of deaths created by the current outbreak of Ebola, there are other illnesses, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, which cause a greater number of deaths each day in the region. However, as governments are concentrating all of their efforts on combating the current outbreak, this prevents many people from obtaining treatment for other illnesses.

Similarly, as a consequence of Ebola, the population of affected communities no longer go to hospitals or other health centers for the treatment of other illnesses, as they fear contracting Ebola, or of receiving a erroneous diagnosis and ending up in a center of treatment for the virus.

Looking ahead

The speed of the spread of Ebola and the catastrophic effects that it is leaving in West Africa are evidence of the tardy and weak response of the international community, and demonstrate the deficient evaluation of the context of countries and populations where such epidemics occur prior to adopting measures to combat them.

The policies adopted to date seem to have failed to take into account that these countries have weak public health systems and governments that lack the capacity to confront this crisis. We need to find solutions that, in addition to searching for a cure to the disease, allow us to combat the virus without having so many negative future consequences for the affected populations.

We will probably never know the exact figures regarding the number of indirect Ebola victims, but at the moment we do know that this illness will leave the countries most affected by the virus social and economic consequences, in addition to the loss of human life, that will take years to resolve.

 

*Laura Lyons is a Researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: UNMEER