Ebola Threatens to Erase Liberia’s Progress Since Civil War

Aug 04, 2014 6:29 am ET

(Updates with comment from WHO spokesman in eighth paragraph. For more stories on the U.S.-Africa summit, see EXT6 <GO>.)

Aug. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The spread of Ebola in Liberia threatens to erase the economic progress the West African nation has made since the end of the civil war in 2003, Vice President Joseph Boakai said.

“This is an emergency that has superimposed upon our resources and we need to deal with it immediately,” he said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg TV in Washington. “This is going to challenge all of our development agenda.”

The worst outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has killed more than 800 people and threatens to spiral out of control. That’s straining the resources in Liberia, which has an economy of about $2 billion and relies on World Bank aid and grants to fund about a third of its budget.

“We need for people to understand this is an emergency, just as something like a flood or any other disaster,” said Boakai, 69, who is representing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the U.S.-Africa summit this week. Liberia “doesn’t have the personnel or knowledge to handle this by ourselves,” he said.

Liberia is one of the world’s poorest nations and is ranked 182nd out of the 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, which is based on metrics such as education, health and income.

No Cure

Ebola has no known cure or vaccine and has killed at least 826 people since March, according to the World Health Organization. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation of about 170 million people, has had one confirmed case.

The $100 million pledged by the WHO to combat the disease is a “reasonable” start, Boakai said. With extra resources, including expert medical personnel, Liberia may be able to declare the disease under control within a month, he said.

The WHO has $30 million of the $100 million it has pledged, Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for the organization, said in an interview with Caroline Hyde and Mark Barton on Bloomberg Television’s “Countdown.”

“We need another $70 million to fully fund the activities that we feel are necessary,” he said. “We are calling on all international partners” to provide people and supplies to help fight the outbreak, Haertl said. The risk of cases outside of West Africa is “extremely small,” he said.

Growth Forecasts

Slowing iron-ore production, fewer remittances from Liberians living abroad and a weaker currency were already weighing on the economy before Ebola. Gross domestic product is forecast to expand about 5.9 percent this year, less than the 8.7 percent pace last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The civil war, which left more than 250,000 people dead, ended when President Charles Taylor resigned in 2003. Taylor is now serving a 50-year prison sentence after his conviction for war crimes related to the Sierra Leone civil war.

Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank and Citigroup Inc. official, took office in 2005, helping to spur more than $16 billion in investment in mining and agriculture, including from OAO Severstal and ArcelorMittal. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts in promoting peace and womens rights.

The government asked the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia to consider slowing its withdrawal to help with combating Ebola, Boakai said. The peacekeepers are helping to transport medical staff, equipment and supplies and have acted as police officers, training Liberians to eventually take over when the mission ends in 2015.

A lack of resources and inexperienced staff allowed the disease to continue to spread, while Liberians weren’t fully aware of how important it was to adhere to measures aimed at controlling it, he said.

“The message is now reaching them,” he said. “They are now accepting that Ebola is real.”

--With assistance from Judy Lyons in Washington, Pauline Bax in Accra and Elise Zoker in Johannesburg.