This week, The Economist features an article on the debilitating toll of the Ebola viral disease (EVD) on sub-Saharan Africa. Until now, much of the concern generated by the viral epidemic has focussed on the number of deaths, the ease with which the disease has spread in this its most recent iteration, and how a globalised world is that much vulnerable as people’s travel paths cross-cross. In the different conversations that have arisen at the intersections of these diverse trends, mental images of ill-fated victims haemorrhaging from multiple body parts have been constantly exaggerated by the absence of vaccines or known prophylactics for the disease.
Accordingly, there have been worries around the economic consequence of the disease. In the most sorely affected West African states, farms have ceased to function, so food (and related farm products) will be scarce in the months to come. Markets have stopped too, ensuring that even the little food (and other resources) that is (are) available would not be distributed most efficiently over the same period. Therefore, life in those parts was always going to be harder even after the worst of the epidemic was behind us. In addition, the burden of this particular outbreak has been borne by the economically active segments of these countries’ respective populations. Ensuring thereby, that even the capacity to recover from current economic constraints is itself severely constrained.
Expectedly, we have had various measures of the EVD’s economic output effects. The Economist put out its own numbers for the disease’s effect on in-bound tourism to the continent. And they were large. First, at about US$170bn annually, the magazine estimates tourism as contributing close to 10% of sub-Saharan Africa’s output growth. Thus, anything that acted to interfere with this line of business was going to hurt real bad. Second, it would seem that four countries on the continent stand to lose the most from a tapering off of foreign tourists. Together, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania have already lost close to three-quarters of their travel bookings this year. Given the continent’s already meager resources, this is obviously very bad news.
Is the news made worse by the fact that ignorance of the continent lies at the heart of this drop off in foreigners’ demand for package tours to Africa? The Economist’s article, titled “The ignorance epidemic”, cites two dimensions to this witlessness. First is the much-derided tendency for non-Africans to see the continent as one country. Thus, the fact of a particularly pernicious haemorrhagic viral epidemic on the continent’s west coast is sufficient to put foreigners off traveling to its tourist destinations, even when, and this is the second factor completely ignored by the reluctant travellers, the distance from the epidemic’s epicenter is “as far or farther than the homes of many European tourists.”
The West has not always been charitable to Africa; except, of course, in those instances when suffering on the continent is palpable enough to prick the hardiest conscience. This message, it would seem, is the major one reinforced by the response of western tourists to the epidemic. Yet the decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to ban the Moroccan national football side from this year’s African Cup of Nation’s competition, means that we must re-interrogate much of the opprobrium reserved by The Economist for ignorant foreigners back home.
The Moroccans had been scheduled to host the continent’s most prestigious football tourney early next year, but had consistently argued that the fact of the EVD still rampant in parts of the continent counselled moderation. They, clearly, were not minded to add the disease to their list of intra-African trade. And indeed no one should. Yet, at this point, it would seem either that the disease is running out of momentum, or that the efforts (belated) at containing it are finally beginning to bear fruit.
Any which case, except in the one example that proves the rule — Nigeria’s handling of its experience of the disease — the recent Ebola viral disease has only been rolled back on the back of help from outside the continent. Barely recovered from the trauma, it would be most inappropriate, immediately to provide a potential new culture for the disease’s incubation and propagation — and this is what uncontrolled travel to (and the many interactions at) the venue of a major football tournament would represent at this point.
Equatorial Guinea’s decision to step into the breach created by Morocco’s reluctance would have been exemplary at other times. But it does look in this circumstance all but foolhardy. Especially when CAF has not played any serious role in containing the current epidemic; and may thus not be able to offer the new host much by way of advice or practical support in dealing with the EVD.