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Ebola virus continues to fuel Sierra Leone's economic freefall

Sierra Leone's efforts to stem the Ebola virus, including travel restrictions and public gathering bans, have affected many sectors. From the Krootown market to the global marketplace, the country's once promising economy has been left devastated.

From the marketplace to the global economy, few sectors left untouched

Kadiatu Sesay watches over her vegetable stand in Kroo Town market in Freetown. Since the Ebola virus came to Sierra Leone, her sales have been cut in half or worse. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

Kadiatu Sesay sprinkles the chili peppers and tomatoes on her vegetable stand in Krootown market with cool water. It helps keep them fresh looking and appetizing while she waits for customers.

These days, there are far fewer of them.

“Since Ebola started, there’s no sales,” Sesay says in Creole.

In an effort to stem the spread of virus, the government has put a nightly curfew in place in much of Sierra Leone, including its capital, Freetown.

Since Ebola started, there's no sales- Kadiatu Sesay, vegetable vendor 

There’s also a ban on most public gatherings.

“It affects me, my house and my children.” Sesay tells us, as she goes about straightening a vegetable stand that has barely been disturbed.

In a nearby stall, Ramatu Bangura holds up the dried Kini fish to demonstrate soaring food costs. 

Ramatu Bangura sits with her barely touched stock of dried Kini fish. The price of them has soared 30 per cent since Ebola hit and most of her struggling customers can't afford to purchase them.
​ “Now, this costs 15,000 (Sierra Leone Leones),” she says. “In past times, if you have 10,000, we would give it to you.”

The price of fish has shot up from $2.75 CAD to $4.15 CAD, a price out of reach for most of Bangura’s customers.

“Since this morning, only four fish, I sell,” she says with an exasperated shrug. 

Ebola virus stopped country's growing prosperity

The market is a microcosm of the Sierra Leonian economy since the virus came from Guinea last spring and has been spreading since, unabated in some areas. Prior to that, Sierra Leone’s economy was among the fastest growing in the world.

A dozen years after a decade long, economically devastating civil war, Sierra Leone was finally beginning to form the building blocks of economic prosperity. The Ebola virus has stopped all that in its tracks.

I just manage living on what I earn for a day, just to survive- Frank Coker, taxi driver

The forecast for gross domestic product (GDP) growth for 2014, fuelled by natural resources and foreign investment, was 11.3 per cent, according to government spokesperson Abdulai Bayraytay.

"Now, the GDP growth forecast for Sierra Leone is down to 4 per cent."

Like the other West African countries hit by the virus, the government is operating, but is single-minded in its purpose.

“The majority of resources, about 80 per cent now are going to be diverted towards the fight against Ebola.” Bayraytay says.

Most government programs have been shut down.

Sierra Leone is working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to establish a post-Ebola recovery plan. Bayraytay says recovery efforts must be in place even before public health efforts eradicate the virus. 

"At the end of the day, improving the lives of the people is also important. So if we can do it concurrently whilst fighting Ebola, then why not?"

Tourism industry wiped out

At the Freetown offices of travel agency Visit Sierra Leone (VSL), managing director Abimbola Carrol pulls up the flight schedule on his computer. 

“This is an example of a flight schedule which looks like a skeleton of what it usually should be,” he says, running a finger over the screen to highlight all the empty spaces.

“It’s usually full with flights, but we’re down to only two flights on Tuesdays. Fridays, there’s no flights.”

Airlines, including Air France and British Airways, have cancelled all flights. They probably wouldn’t be doing much business anyway. Sierra Leone’s fledgling tourism industry has been effectively wiped out. 

“There’s absolutely zero,” Carroll says. “We had bookings and we were looking forward to receiving our tourists but yeah, unfortunately for us, it’s 100 per cent cancellations.”

VSL is staying afloat on corporate business now, but there have been points where staff have had to take a 50 per cent wage cut to make company ends meet.

Taxi driver Frank Coker knows exactly how that feels. ​ With the economic fallout from Ebola affecting every walk of life in Freetown, many of his customers no longer have the luxury of taking a taxi. 
Frank Coker sits in his Freetown taxi. About half his business and income have disappeared since Ebola hit.

Coker’s income has plummeted from the equivalent of $20 CAD per day to $10. He is supporting two brothers and a sister on that and it's barely enough to keep food on the table. 

“I just manage living on what I earn for a day, just to survive.”

Still, Coker counts himself lucky to be employed; so many people he knows have lost their jobs altogether. 

“I hope and pray that it stops now,” he says.

With that, Coker falls silent and continues to manoeuvre bumpy Freetown roads that, in this instant, seem a fitting metaphor for Sierra Leone’s economy.

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

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