How companies are adapting to a virus that threatens economies as well as lives

THE death toll and the devastation caused by the Ebola outbreak continue to rise. As many as 5,000 people are now recorded as having been killed by the virus rampaging through Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (with a few cases elsewhere), and about double that number have been infected.

Although there were some encouraging signs this week that the outbreak is being curbed in Liberia, its real toll may be much higher than official figures show.

The economic damage is rising, as fields lie fallow and traders stop going to market. Prices of basic foods have more than doubled in some parts of the affected areas and incomes are plummeting.

The World Bank reckons that the cost to the region’s economies may be as much as $33 billion over the next 18 months if the virus is not quickly contained. Countries that have struggled to emerge from civil wars or strife may be set back years.

Yet some businesses are continuing to operate, keeping open essential transport arteries and generating export earnings that will provide a base for recovery once the disease is contained.

Among the first consequences of the outbreak were the cancellation of most international flights and the closing of land borders.

One of the remaining air-links is provided by Brussels Airlines, Belgium’s largest carrier.

It has continued to fly scheduled flights to Monrovia (Liberia), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Conakry (Guinea), with some flights hopping from one capital to the next.

“It’s become the Ebola express,” says a businessman who has been flying the route frequently.

The airline is not flying directly from Brussels to the three cities because it does not want its staff to have to stay overnight.

So its flights are stopping at Dakar (Senegal) to change crews—though not passengers, because Senegal has banned flights to or from the affected countries.

To assure its crews they are safe, the airline has a small jet on standby to whisk them out should the passenger plane develop technical faults.

It also carries technicians on every flight to make repairs and turn the plane round. “We’re not making a lot of money,” says Geert Sciot, a spokesman. “But we see it as our humanitarian duty to continue.”

One group of firms in the affected countries especially need to keep operating is miners: in Sierra Leone, for example, they generate 80% of export revenue.

African Minerals and Sierra Rutile, two big miners operating in the country, have isolated themselves as much as possible, and built a buffer in the surrounding villages by giving them training and equipment to fight the disease, from soap and chlorine to thermometer guns, some of which are used at checkpoints on roads leading to the mines.

Sierra Rutile takes workers’ temperatures twice a day and asks them where they have been if they leave the area around the mine.

Those who have been in outbreak areas are quarantined. Anyone who falls ill with the virus will go to a specially-equipped isolation unit before being transferred to a hospital.

One benefit of enhanced screening is that diagnosis and treatment of other diseases, such as malaria, has also improved.

The firm’s boss, John Sisay, says employees are complying well with the safeguards. “There is an overwhelming desire to keep the virus out of the area,” he says.

It too has jets standing by to evacuate employees should the remaining scheduled flights be stopped.

African Minerals is running regular charter flights between its mine in Sierra Leone and South Africa, the home country of most of its 800 expatriate employees and contractors. It has started importing all its food.

African Minerals and Sierra Rutile have stockpiled food, fuel and spare parts to tide them over should flights be halted.

Businesses that deal with the public, such as banks, cannot both isolate themselves and keep operating.

Standard Chartered says it has imposed strict hygiene protocols and is providing lots of hand sanitiser and chlorinated water at its branches and offices. It checks the temperatures of staff and customers.

One worry for almost all foreign firms in the region is that air-ambulance services are refusing to carry patients with fevers, never mind confirmed Ebola cases. Staff falling ill from malaria, for instance, can no longer be flown out.

Many companies have been given informal undertakings by Western governments that they will evacuate their own citizens using either military or government-chartered flights such as those currently used to transport infected aid workers.

But not all governments have agreed to do so. Firms worry that whereas British or American expatriates will be taken home, those from poorer countries in Africa or South Asia may have to be treated on site.

Despite these risks, most big firms say that expats have elected to keep working rather than return home.

“We’ve had no defections, so to speak,” says Mike Jones of African Minerals. “Guys are comfortable with the situation.”

Comfortable may be a strong word, but businesses are proving adaptable and resourceful. Even so, there is a widespread feeling that international agencies and governments wasted the opportunity to curtail the outbreak sooner.

“If we had just 10% of the resources we have now a few months ago, the problem would have been handled,” says an executive. – The Economist

November 2014
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