Ebola is already responsible for thousands of deaths in West Africa, but the death toll actually understates the full harm caused by the disease. As Ebola strains health-care and economic systems in the region, the disease will also lead to long-term damage that could permanently set back nations already struggling with poverty and hunger.
The World Bank, in a report released October 8, estimated Ebola could cost West Africa as much as $33 billion over the next two years if it spreads unchecked. The Economist charted the possible effects, indicating that Ebola could cost Liberia up to 12 percent of its GDP, which measures a country's economic output. In comparison, the Great Recession caused US GDP to drop by 5.1 percent from December 2007 to June 2009.
The heavy economic cost comes at what could otherwise have been a great moment for Liberia, as Ylan Mui explained on Wonkblog:
The best-case scenario compiled by the World Bank predicts Liberia’s economic growth will still plunge by more than half this year. Rubber, one of the nation’s biggest exports, is expected to fall 20 percent this year. Gold and diamond mining have also dropped off. Beer production plunged 30 percent during the first quarter. The World Bank’s doomsday forecasts total a whopping $33 billion for the entire West African region over the next two years if the virus spreads unchecked.
"The take-away messages from this analysis are that the economic impacts are already very serious in the core three countries ... and could become catastrophic ," the World Bank stated.
It is a sharp break from recent history. Over the past decade, Liberia has emerged as an African success story. Two generations of despotic dictatorship had shrunk the population and decimated public infrastructure. The election of current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005 marked a new era of political stability and rapid rebuilding. From roads to rubber farms to five-star resorts — everything seemed to be under construction, creating new jobs and enticing foreign investors into the country.
The renaissance was not just happening in Liberia. Across Africa, the political strife and horrific violence that once defined the continent have abated. In its place is a youthful demographic hungry for work and eager for the trappings of a better life, from cell phones to alcoholic spirits. Africa is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and Liberia was hoping to ride that tide to the next rung in the global ladder.
To learn more about Ebola, read Vox's explainer.