When the first case of the Ebola virus entered the United States this month in Dallas, the medical team that treated the infected patient was quarantined and even the ambulance in which he was transported was decontaminated. When the virus entered Sierra Leone, an entire hospital was forced to shut down.
That is just one sign of the glaring disparity in the responses to the Ebola virus -- a gap that not only separates a public health epidemic and a contained crisis, but also provides a stark reminder of the consequences of global inequality.
“Thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place,” World Bank President Jim Kim said in a speech Wednesday morning in Washington. "This pandemic shows the deadly cost of unequal access to basic services and the consequences of our failure to fix this problem.”
Kim pointed out that the knowledge and ability to contain the disease that has killed more than 3,000 people in Africa is widely available, not just in wealthy countries such as the United States, but also in places with much more moderate incomes. Even Uganda has been able to contain several outbreaks of the virus quickly over the past 20 years.
To be successful, those efforts required investment in basic public infrastructure -- education campaigns, access to health care, trained medical providers -- that have have yet to firmly take root in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the hardest-hit countries.
“The battle against the virus is a fight on many fronts – human lives and health foremost among them,” Kim said. “But it is also a fight against inequality”
Nearly two-thirds of Liberia's population lives at or below the country's poverty line, according to the most recent data from the World Bank. Gross national income per capita last year was $410, lower than average for low-income countries. Compare that to Uganda, where a quarter of residents are in poverty and gross national income per capita is $510.
Let's take this even further: Liberia's gross domestic product last year was nearly $2 billion. Uganda's was more than 10 times larger. America's is roughly 8,400 times bigger than Liberia's.
The world economic ladder is long, and West Africa had just begun to gain a foothold on the next rung.
Pre-Ebola projections of economic growth over the next two years clocked in at 7 percent or higher -- numbers that would make the region the best performer on the continent. It was the star of the African economic summit in Washington just two months, with General Electric committing $2 billion to the region to train workers, improve infrastructure and develop energy resources.
But the Ebola virus underscores just how fragile economic progress can be. In Liberia, for example, the World Bank has slashed its forecast for growth this year by more than half, from nearly 6 percent to just 2.5 percent. Under its best-case scenario, the Ebola epidemic will cost the Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea a collective $359 million. The worst-case outcome is more than double that.
“Everybody was talking about West Africa as a growth center for the world economy,” said Todd Moss, chief operating officer at the Center for Global Development, who focuses on U.S.-Africa relations. “I worry that it’s going to give people pause.”
The ripple effects are already being felt. Liberia’s largest agricultural export is rubber, and the World Bank estimates that trade is expected to drop by 20 percent this year as companies struggle to ship the product and people are hampered from getting to work because of quarantine zones.
But private investment can also bring hope. One of the nation’s largest employers, a Firestone plant that makes tires, suffered an early Ebola outbreak in the spring. The company isolated those affected and brought in their own medical staff. The plant now remains open.
“If anything, this should bolster the case that greater engagement with Western economies are needed,” Moss said.
Staff writer Leonard Bernstein contributed to this report.