THE Ebola epidemic was not just a public health crisis, but an economic one, the head of the African Development Bank Donald Kaberuka said recently. He might have added that it is also a branding crisis.
Africa is quickly sliding back to being a continent characterised by disease — rather than as a new frontier for investment. Add in the recent terror attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Kenya and we can tick the conflict box as well.
Newsweek magazine has stoked the fires of negative perception with a controversial cover picture of a chimpanzee and the headline, “A back door for Ebola”. It went further to suggest that “bush meat” being smuggled into the US by Africans could spread the epidemic. Based on sketchy scientific evidence, the article appears to be a bit of a “thumb-suck” scare story that serves to conjure up old stereotypes of Africa.
Newsweek is not alone. The wall-to-wall media coverage of the Ebola outbreak has included scenes of desperate poverty and rudimentary medical facilities. Images of enticing tourist destinations, growing modern cities and thriving industry have temporarily vanished from the news radar. The “Africa rising” story has been filed away.
This is not to say that alarm over Ebola is entirely unfounded. The epidemic carries obvious economic implications. China, often touted by African leaders as being more resilient than the West to the continent’s challenges, has suggested Ebola has cast a shadow over its new investment plans.
Just as international investors seemed to be learning that Africa was 54 different countries, the Ebola outbreak took us back to the “Africa is one big dangerous place” problem.
Anecdotal stories abound. A Zimbabwean relates how, when asked where he was from by a Japanese couple in a hotel in Europe, they shrank from him and muttered an alarmed “Ebola!”. Handshakes are rapidly becoming a thing of the past with and between Africans.
While Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are effectively isolated by travel bans, the number of people travelling to Nigeria is also down, with hotels reporting a 30% fall in occupancy.
Panic has spread a lot faster than the virus. There have been a handful of Ebola deaths in this country of 170-million people but it has been lumped together with the other three countries in its region where hundreds have died.
Indeed, Africa is turning in on itself. South Africa, Chad, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Senegal are among those countries closing their borders to nationals from affected countries. This may prevent the spread of the virus in the short term, but it will do nothing for the continental branding issue in the long term.
Kenya might be a long way from the villages of death in West Africa, but it is being viewed with suspicion, being an airline hub for West Africans, among others.
The economic effects of this Ebola outbreak will be significant. Perception fuels reality and the shine has already been taken off Africa as the new frontier for capital.
Certainly the worst affected countries are likely to see dramatically reduced economic growth this year. It is only a matter of time before Ebola becomes a trade barrier.
Reputational damage has already happened. Once the crisis is over, how long will it take to bounce back?
• Games is CEO of advisory Africa @ Work.