Understanding the economic impact of Ebola and informing the response

When I left Sierra Leone nearly three weeks ago it was already evident that there would be important economic fallout from the Ebola outbreak. The disease had stayed relatively contained in two districts (Kailahun, which borders Guinea, and neighboring Kenema where the patients were brought for medical care) for the first few months but reports that it was spreading beyond those districts were leading to widespread fear. Those who could do so restricted their travel, as well as contact outside immediate family and colleagues. Programs, investments, and hiring decisions were being postponed as people waited to see how the situation evolved. Increasingly, Ebola, and the response to it, was taking up more and more of the time and energy of government officials. On my last day in Freetown the president declared a state of emergency that, in its current version, imposes a cordon sanitaire on Kailahun and Kenema and forbids the opening of bars and restaurants at night and the use of okadas (motorcycle taxis) after 7 p.m.

In an atmosphere rife with fear and rumors, good information is extremely valuable. This was evident in the many requests I received for copies of Innovation for Poverty Action’s (IPA) training on how to protect against the disease--but this is equally true as we move to combatting the economic fallout. The highly disbursed population and disruptions to transport routes make it even harder to acquire good information, yet this will be essential for the government to plan an effective, targeted response.

For this reason, the International Growth Centre (IGC) and IPA are activating a real-time monitoring system (using phone-based surveys) to understand and help the government and its development partners respond to the economic consequences of the outbreak. The first step will be to monitor markets throughout the country for signs of price spikes arising from transport disruptions. (Lorenzo Casaburi, Tavneet Suri, and I have a paper showing just how poorly integrated rural markets are in Sierra Leone at the best of times. The market survey designed for this paper and its national equivalent that we did for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Security will form the basis for the initial step in the monitoring process.) We hope to have initial results out next week.

The next step will be to monitor the decline in economic activity in urban areas. Again, this will be done with a phone survey as sending enumerators out across the country has, like many other economic activities in Sierra Leone, been suspended.

A detailed statement on the IGC assessment and response to the economic consequences, along with a press release based on this statement, can be found here.