Pledges to Fight Against Ebola Now Exceed the Cost—but They’re No Match for Its Economic Impact

The epidemic is draining billions of dollars from some of the world’s poorest countries.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 31, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Welcome as they are, even the tens of millions of dollars Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Aliko Dangote—the richest man in Africa—have pledged toward fighting Ebola in recent days can’t make a dent in the overall economic damage the epidemic is wreaking.

Ebola could cost the countries in the hot zone as much as $33 billion over the next 18 months, according to a World Bank study released this month. That’s big money anywhere, but it’s a potentially calamitous sum in impoverished West Africa. Liberia alone could lose some $300 million by the end of 2015, the study estimates—15 percent of the country’s annual GDP—and the region could see a third of its growth during that period wiped out.

Those estimates are based on economists’ observations of what’s already happening with indicators such as cement sales and visitors; falloffs in those activities signal that people are pulling back on investments, purchases, and travel out of fear. Economists call it “aversion behavior.”

That $33 billion estimate is the World Bank’s worst-case “High Ebola” scenario, in which the disease continues to spread at more or less its current pace. But one of the researchers who prepared the study, Mead Over of the Center for Global Development, cautions, “The epidemic is moving faster than we economists can work. The latest information suggests that even the World Bank’s ‘High Ebola’ scenario may be optimistic.”

The economic damage could be limited, though, if the epidemic can be brought under control quickly. It’s that frontline effort that Zuckerberg, other billionaires, and foundations (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds TakePart World) are putting their money into. The good news is that on paper, the battle is now well funded: The United Nations’ most recent estimate of what’s needed to stop the outbreak, care for the infected, and meet other immediate needs in the region totals $988 million, and a recent tally by Over’s group finds that donors have promised to give more than $2.4 billion. (As of Thursday, however, only $957 million has been delivered or contractually committed.)

One-third of that money comes from the United States government.