Two comments made over the weekend by leaders of important global organizations should give the rest of us reasons to be gravely concerned about the ongoing Ebola epidemic.
Late Friday, Jim Yong Kim, the current head of the World Bank, warned: “We are losing the battle” against Ebola and that, “The threat is not only for the economy of West Africa, but also for the global economy.”
Although Kim did not elaborate on the possible impact to the global economy, the World Bank has already calculated that the epidemic could cost the West African region—primarily the three worst hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—at least $32 billion in direct costs and productivity losses.
On Saturday, the head of the British-based aid agency Oxfam, Mark Goldring, declared that the Ebola epidemic could become the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation,” in comments ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers Monday (today in Manila), where the crisis is expected to dominate the agenda.
The news report of Goldring’s comments pointed out that at just about the same time, US President Barack Obama was cautioning the American people against “giving in to hysteria or fear,” even as the US government was significantly ramping up its efforts against the epidemic, which has seen three cases in the US—a man returning from Liberia, who died from it, and two nurses who treated him.
Certainly, the Ebola virus causes a scary disease; so far, it has killed about half of the approximately 9,000 people known to have been infected by it, and it is likely that there have been many hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that have been unreported given the backward nature of the three abysmally poor countries that have been hardest hit by it.
Some pundits and even some health authorities have pointed out that many more people die each year from other common infections like influenza, but quantity is not really the point; a flu sufferer has an excellent chance of surviving, but the odds are not in the Ebola sufferer’s favor. There is no vaccine against the virus and “miracle treatments,” otherwise-untested drugs that seemed to hold some promise after being administered to some patients earlier this year, have not turned out to be any more effective than conventional treatments.
Ebola is not quite as contagious as some other recent panic-inducing diseases such as SARS or the swine flu, but the particular characteristics of Ebola make it extremely dangerous; the infection can be passed on by close contact with a patient, even for some time after that patient is dead, which poses a perilous risk to health workers and family members.
Even more alarming, the virus can take up to 21 days to incubate, meaning that a person who has caught the disease could travel very far from its source before becoming contagious; at best, the long incubation period means that people who have known exposure have to be quarantined for an extended period of time, which puts a strain on health care resources.
The most alarming thing about the Ebola epidemic is not the disease itself, dangerous as it is, but the way the world is responding to it, and that more than anything else may lead to the harm to the world’s economy that the World Bank’s Kim fears. Fighting the epidemic has been hindered by excessive bureaucracy. As recently as this past August, the World Health Organization (WHO) was publicly scolding officials and media outlets for referring to the epidemic as an “epidemic” rather than an “outbreak;” it has recently emerged that this downplaying of the seriousness was largely the result of office politics among regional WHO managers anxious to keep their jobs.
Here in the Philippines, the government is sending mixed messages, on the one hand making a show of preparing strong measures to respond to possible cases of infection, while on the other taking a casual attitude toward preventing the virus from making landfall in the Philippines in the first place.
A plan announced some time ago to evacuate several hundred overseas workers from the affected region in Africa has gone nowhere, and while extra steps to screen arriving airport travelers have been put in place, these have been found to be almost completely ineffective at actually intercepting suspected cases of the disease. The general trust deficit the current government suffers may even be worsened to some extent when it comes to anti-Ebola measures specifically, given its poor record of handling localized outbreaks of controllable diseases like measles and dengue fever in recent years, and the bigger the trust deficit, the more likely people are to find ways to avoid cooperating with measures to prevent an Ebola outbreak here.
The critical risk to the country comes from the large number of overseas workers, many of whom are going to be on the move between wherever they are deployed and the Philippines in the coming weeks due to the holiday season. Because of the long incubation period of the disease (which is the main reason airport screening doesn’t work very well), the chances of an infected person finding his or her way into the general population are quite high; if that happens, no amount of government reassurance is going to prevent a panic. That would certainly have a detrimental effect on the economy; people who are frightened by a possible epidemic tend not to do things like spend money in crowded malls, for instance.
The even more worrisome thing is that the scenario wouldn’t necessarily even have to happen here to have a negative impact. The Philippines is not the only country with a large overseas workforce; the infected expatriate worker might not arrive here, but instead in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar—all countries that, like the Philippines, have somewhat shaky public health systems and would be fertile ground for the virus to spread. Any outbreak involving a number of cases in any of those countries, or worse, more than one of them at the same time is going to lead to the next logical step, restrictions on travel. That would be a calamity for the Philippine economy, as well as that of other countries that rely heavily on worker remittances.
It may not come to that; other recent health scares have not, despite the initial alarm they caused. There is nothing wrong with hoping for a similar outcome from the Ebola epidemic, but assuming that will be the case would be unwise.