Millions of ordinary Africans, facing panicky quarantine orders and cancelled flights, are beginning to pay a heavy price for the world’s alarmist myths about the Ebola crisis.
Far from the centre of the Ebola outbreak, airlines and governments are imposing restrictions on African travellers, ignoring the advice of medical experts. Korean Air Lines became the latest example on Thursday, suspending all of its flights to Kenya, a country that doesn’t have a single Ebola case and is located 5,000 kilometres from the danger zone.
Other fear-based reactions are multiplying. Nigerian athletes were placed into quarantine at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in China, prompting them to quit in protest. Ghana is proposing a ban on all “public gatherings.” Zambia is banning entry to anyone from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria, the four West African nations where Ebola is present. British Airways and Emirates have suspended flights to some West African cities, and Ivory Coast is blocking ship cargo to the three hardest-hit countries, raising fears of food and fuel shortages.
The heavy-handed travel bans are provoking sharp criticism from experts at the World Health Organization and Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The flight cancellations are an overreaction that could make the situation worse, hindering the efforts to help Ebola-affected regions, the WHO says.
“WHO disappointed when airlines stop flying to West Africa,” the organization said in a tweet on Thursday. “Hard to save lives if we & other health workers cannot get in.”
Stephen Cornish, executive director of MSF Canada, said the suspension of African flights will heighten the risks of Ebola spreading to other countries, since it will become more difficult to send medical and epidemiological specialists to the Ebola zone.
“We should not be cutting off the affected countries’ lifelines in a misguided effort at home society protection,” he said in an e-mail. “The oversensationalism and hype around Ebola has not helped the public’s understanding of how the disease is spread.”
Some of the panic is due to fears that Ebola could spread by air travel, as it did in one case already, when a Liberian with the Ebola virus flew to Lagos and died there, infecting several other people. But the risk of Ebola transmission during air travel “remains low,” the WHO said in a statement on Thursday.
Unlike influenza or tuberculosis, Ebola is not airborne and can only be transmitted by direct contact with the body fluids of someone who is sick with the disease. “On the small chance that someone on the plane is sick with Ebola, the likelihood of other passengers and crew having contact with their body fluids is even smaller,” the WHO said.
“Usually when someone is sick with Ebola, they are so unwell that they cannot travel. WHO is therefore advising against travel bans to and from affected countries.”
The global health organization is bracing for more panic and fear. “In the coming days there will be rumours all over the world,” WHO senior official Isabelle Nuttall told a briefing in Geneva on Thursday.
The travel restrictions aren’t just hampering the medical response to Ebola. They could also damage the economies of many African nations, scaring away investors and damaging trade.
Economic analysts are already warning that the Ebola crisis could slow the growth rates in the three worst-affected countries by up to 2 percentage points. Some farmers have abandoned their fields, cross-border markets have been shut down and several major mining companies have scaled back their operations or postponed expansion plans.
The Ebola crisis could also create shortages of food, fuel and other supplies because the nearest big port, Abidjan in Ivory Coast, has announced a ban on all ships from the Ebola-affected countries. Some media in Liberia are calling it an “economic blockade.” The country’s authorities have said they are worried that rice importers could be heavily affected by the ban, a Liberian newspaper reported on Thursday.
Liberia and Sierra Leone are especially vulnerable to the economic impact of the Ebola crisis, including the damage to trade and air travel, because they are still recovering from devastating civil wars that ended barely a decade ago.