11/12/2014 12:06 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Ebola's Rippling Consequences

By Farah M. Valencia

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the latest numbers: 4,922 deaths due to Ebola as of October 23, 2014. This number reflects nearly half of the known cases -- 49 percent, to be exact -- in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, United States, and Spain, with 99.7 percent of the confirmed deaths from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The number of affected people for this outbreak is four times higher than any other of the recorded Ebola outbreaks combined since 1976. However, many have decried the international response as deplorably slow. As a result, the consequences are jarring. The biggest lament is the obvious and horrific death toll. Along with a sick, dying and orphaned population, the crippling fear of being infected has rippling consequences on the affected countries and beyond. Food insecurity and declining economic growth are two further quantifiable problems hurting West Africa, the poorest region of the world. A longer-lasting issue will be trauma and mistrust that will surely linger.

Access to food has declined due to there being fewer people working in the fields and fewer people transporting the goods. Given that Ebola has hit rural areas the hardest, people are either too sick to work or too worried of getting sick. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that 90 percent of key farming land in Sierra Leone has been abandoned and people have fled to areas less likely to be affected. Furthermore, neighboring countries have set up travel and import/export restrictions, a big issue for the three hardest-hit countries, since they rely heavily on several imported foods, such as cereal. As a consequence of the lack of production and diminishing imports, food prices have naturally increased. Guinea, Liberia and Senegal already had food-insecurity issues before Ebola hit. Now the FAO has warned of a potential food-security crisis. Due to the sluggish response of the international community to help contain Ebola, another effort by the international community is needed to address the issue of malnutrition for the wider population living in affected areas due to rising food insecurity.

Agriculture is one of three major sources of employment and contributors to GDP along with other sectors (industry/mining, services) which have been negatively impacted, slowing down the economic growth of already extremely poor countries. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are three of the poorest countries in the world (in the bottom 10 percent), and the World Bank predicts a decrease in their economic growth for 2014 and 2015 as a consequence of Ebola. The impact can be seen in the decrease in production and exports, which are vital for the countries to generate incomes and revenue. For example, the second-largest mining company in Liberia, China Union, closed all production in August, most likely due to fear of contagion. The African Development Bank (AfDB) also reported that the service industry suffers from a lack of international traffic, production in sectors like rubber and palm oil are slowing down, and the expat community is leaving, creating a loss of important skills. As the AfDB predicted, international donors are not able to carry out important projects in the region due to there being fewer people willing to work in those countries. The economy is facing many problems and, as a consequence, the populations of the affected countries as well.

The high number of deaths is the biggest tragedy of this Ebola outbreak. However, when looking beyond the death toll, it becomes clear that the issue those countries face is even worse. Not only does the lack of production in agriculture threaten their food security, but it also means less income and less revenue for the countries. When combined with the decrease in production in the industry and services sectors, the affected countries face economic consequences beyond the obvious issue of not being able to afford proper health care for their population. Since cases of Ebola have been detected outside West Africa, the international response is finally picking up, and more money has been pledged and committed to fight the epidemic. However, due to the shortsighted and lackadaisical initial response and the fear of contracting the disease, Ebola has had rippling consequences on the affected countries.

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Farah M. Valencia currently works on projects in West Africa and Latin America within the Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank. She holds a B.A. in international development with a focus on Africa from Boston University, and an M.A. in environment, sustainable development and risks from Sciences Po Paris. Farah speaks five languages fluently and has worked with international-development organizations in Europe, the U.S., Africa, and South America.

The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the World Bank, its board of executive directors or the governments they represent.