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Can Sierra Leone's economy survive Ebola?

By Ayo Johnson, Viewpoint Africa, Special to CNN
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sierra Leone's economy is expected to shrink by 3.5% as a result of Ebola outbreak
  • 60% of Sierra Leoneans already live below the poverty line
  • Many in Sierra Leone are in quarantine, further injuring the economy

Editor's note: Ayo Johnson is a journalist and documentary film maker who is a specialist on African affairs. He is the founder and editor of news website Viewpoint Africa. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- Sierra Leone is facing its toughest test to date. The Ebola virus, very deadly and currently without a cure, is fast-spreading throughout the small West African country.

Ebola has overburdened Sierra Leone's already fragile health systems, and shown firsthand the devastating effect underdevelopment and lack of investment can have on a country's well-being. Decades of poor political decision making, bad investments and brain drain have rendered Sierra Leone incapable of managing a health crisis of this magnitude. In a desperate cry for international help, the government of Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency, informing the world that it has lost control in its battle against the virus.

Today, there are a handful of qualified doctors and nurses left to manage this health emergency. Many health practitioners have left for better working conditions and higher wages elsewhere in the world. Many of those that have remained have contracted the virus. Their reward for their bravery is treatment in Sierra Leone's substandard facilities.

While we are dealing with a worldwide epidemic, it is those living inside the country who are feeling the brunt of their government's mismanagement. The number of those infected has doubled in recent weeks, forcing for the government to call a four-day lockdown starting this week in a bid to control the virus. What this means is that every Sierra Leonean is quarantined inside their homes, unable to leave until after the lockdown. It is a method that some critics argue only drives those infected underground, and will do little to actually curb the spread.

Everyday life in the country is a challenge at the best of times, with many Sierra Leoneans living on the margins of society, and 60% of whom already live below the poverty line. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and facing a health crisis of unparalleled proportions, those same countrymen are likely to be pushed over the edge. Those living in Freetown, the nation's capital, have to resign themselves to treatment in substandard health facilities, while watching infected Americans and British citizens be treated to a higher, more efficient level of medical care in their home countries.

The Ebola epidemic will certainly leave scars across the country. Sierra Leone's economy is expected to shrink by 3.5% as a direct result. If Sierra Leone can ever hope to recover from this slump and get back on fiscal track, it will need a healthy working population and increased business confidence. Right now, that's going to prove a challenge.

Scores of doctors and nurses in Sierra Leone have died from Ebola
Brent Swails/CNN

The British government has recently offered a glimmer of hope on that front, announcing it will build a 62-bed, first-class medical facility in Freetown. Should the building come to pass, it would bring some much-needed confidence to an already strained health sector.

But more than anything, what Sierra Leone needs right now is for its government to show leadership at this critical point in the crisis. There needs to be a unified process for identifying and isolating suspected cases, and a centralized health system that can shoulder the weight of those already infected. Because until the virus is brought under control, there will be a continual slowdown in all sectors of Sierra Leone's economy, a slowdown from which it might never recover.

Read: How the U.S. can break China's hold on Africa

Read: Are human viruses killing world's gorillas?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ayo Johnson.

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