Ebola Knocked West African Countries Off Development Ladder

Dec 2, 2014
Originally published on December 2, 2014 6:24 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The federal government has selected 35 hospitals around the country to serve as Ebola treatment centers in the event such centers are needed. Ultimately, the government wants to have 50 U.S. hospitals with the resources and training to care for Ebola patients. That's part of President Obama's request to Congress for more than 6 billion dollars in emergency Ebola funding.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The president underscored that request this afternoon during a visit to the National Institutes of Health. He met with researchers there who've been testing an experimental vaccine for Ebola and says the preliminary results are encouraging.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No potential Ebola vaccine has ever made it this far. So this is exciting news. But it's also a reminder of the importance of government-funded research and our need to keep investing in basic research.

CORNISH: While the pace of new infections in West Africa is leveling off, the epidemic is far from under control. It's already killed more than 6,000 people. And today, the World Bank warned of a growing economic toll, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone were already desperately poor, with average incomes of just $400 a year. But before the Ebola epidemic hit, things had been looking up.

Marcelo Giugale of the World Bank says Liberia's economy was on pace to grow nearly 6 percent this year. Guinea's? Four and a half percent. And Sierra Leone's a whopping 11 percent.

MARCELO GIUGALE: They were finally beginning to climb the development ladder. And all of a sudden, this epidemic breaks out, so it couldn't happen in a worse place.

HORSLEY: The World Bank slashed its growth forecast for Guinea and Sierra Leone in October. And today, it cut those forecasts again. The two countries' economies are now expected to shrink next year, while Liberia's growth rate is only half what it was before the epidemic.

Giugale says much of that slowdown results not from sick people who are unable to work, but rather from healthy people who are scared to. After all, malaria kills nearly six times as many people in West Africa each year as Ebola has so far. But malaria doesn't hollow out the economy the way Ebola has.

GIUGALE: Imagine the trader not opening the shop or a businessman keeping his factory closed or a farmer not tending to the field. When you put all that together, the economy comes to almost standstill.

HORSLEY: There are some signs of improvement in Liberia where much of the American relief effort has been focused. World Bank forecasters are now projecting somewhat faster economic growth there than they were two months ago. But Giugale says West Africa needs economic life-support as well as medical help, so farmers will have crops to harvest and stalled power plants are restarted. He also argues that rather than isolating the countries, we should be improving their transportation links with the outside world.

GIUGALE: That idea of keeping the economy integrated is particularly important now because much of that commerce brings jobs.

HORSLEY: The World Bank's president, Jim Yong Kim, is in Liberia today talking about steps to shore up the economy. Earlier this fall, Kim told a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor the world cannot afford to let these countries, long ravaged by war, slide backwards.

JIM YOUNG KIM: All three of them have come out of conflicts over the last decades. And the last thing we need is for this epidemic then to lead into another situation where they move back into a conflict.

HORSLEY: World Bank officials argue if poverty is the infectious agent that often leads to violence, economic development can be its own kind of vaccine. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.