“Our biggest challenge is that we have been isolated by the airline industry. We are urging all of them to return, because it is a partnership,” minister Kaifala Marah tells This Is Africa on the side of an OECD Development Centre conference in Paris.
Flight bans were a key issue in the international debate around containing the virus’ spread. The bans were met with criticism from experts at the US-based Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the United Nations. Critics claim these measures slowed humanitarian efforts and quashed business linkages.
International airlines including British Airways, Air France and KLM, as well as regional airlines such as Nigeria-based Asky and Arik Air, all suspended flights to Ebola-affected countries in August 2014. Most have yet to resume full service.
Despite progress eliminating cases of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, the country recorded its first death from the disease in several months on 4 April. While conceding the setback, Mr Marah maintains that the Sierra Leone will adhere to a 6-9 month recovery timetable.
“We are clear about our recovery strategy, and we are receiving support across government and from international partners. All of these supports working together ensure that we can get the recovery process right,” he says.
“We understand that first and foremost in order to transform the country, we need to achieve zero [infections] and maintain zero. This is the priority.”
Progress is already evident. The number of incidences has been in steady decline, with only 1 to 5 new cases registered each day - down from a peak of over 500 new cases per week through October and November 2014.
However, the impact on the country’s economy has been outsized.
Whereas Sierra Leone’s economy grew by a record 20.3 percent in 2013 according to the World Bank, that number dropped to just 4 percent in 2014 and is expected to contract by 2 percent through 2015. The Bank estimates that across the three countries, $1.6bn in growth will be foregone due to Ebola. Isolation due to severed transport links during the height of the outbreak likely contributed to these losses.
The disease’s latest victim was a 9-month old boy, who tested positive for the disease after dying in a district bordering neighboring Guinea. The outbreak is the worst incidence of Ebola on record, and has claimed over 10,000 lives.
Liberia, the hardest hit, has not recorded a new case since March. Guinea, meanwhile, has instituted a 45-day state emergency to tackle a new spike in cases.
Mr Marah remains confident that by prioritizing eradication, economic recovery will follow: “If we achieve a zero infection rate, the economy will rebound.”
While working towards this goal, other measures have been taken by the ministry to stabilize the country’s hard hit finances, including providing tax breaks to businesses “to give them breathing space”, as well as embarking on a programme of “prudent borrowing” to fill fiscal gaps.
Debt, however, looks to be one of the legacies of the epidemic. Sierra Leone’s debt burden was already high before the outbreak, at 31.1 percent of GDP for 2013 according to the World Bank. Those figures are set to rise.
The IMF has now offered $100m in debt relief across the three worst impacted countries, but campaigners for the the Jubilee Debt Fund, a debt cancellation advocacy organisation, claim that debt burdens will still increase from $410m to $620m over the next few years as loans to cope with the recovery become due.
To that end, Mr Marah is also advocating for debt cancellation through his ministry. “If [debt] is at the same level as aid, it does not make any sense,” he argues.
“We need fair play and fair trade so we are given the opportunity to participate in the global economy.”
Originally published by This Is Africa, an fDi sister publication (www.thisisafricaonline.com)