Posted on March 23, 2020

When a Virus Strikes Africa, We Barely Notice

Remi Adekoya, Spiked Online, March 23, 2020

In 2014, an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus ravaged several West African countries, eventually leaving over 11,300 people dead in its wake.

It could have been much worse. Ebola is highly contagious and has an average mortality rate of 50 per cent. (The average mortality rate for Covid-19 is about one per cent.) When the disease spread to Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos, a densely populated city of 21million people often crowded in slums, public-health officials envisioned an urban apocalypse. Yet despite thousands of deaths, and the realistic potential of millions eventually contracting and dying of Ebola in West Africa, global markets hardly blinked.

Even this year, at the same time as Covid-19 has been spreading across the world, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has been facing what is turning out to be the world’s largest outbreak of Lassa fever. This is a viral disease far deadlier than Covid-19, with an average mortality rate of 23 per cent. So far there have been 906 cases and 161 deaths spread across 27 of Nigeria’s 36 states. Few outside the country have noticed, just as few outside West Africa noticed the impact of Ebola.

Compare the response to the Ebola outbreak to the market meltdown we have been witnessing for weeks, even when Europe’s Coronavirus death toll was still in the low hundreds. Why the difference in reaction? It cannot be explained by the fact that the Ebola outbreak was mostly limited to a region. If a disease as deadly and contagious as Ebola had broken out in several Western European nations simultaneously, markets would still have plunged.

It raises the obvious question: why do African lives seem to matter less to the world? Some will say it is because of racism. But this is not about racism. The brutal reality is that this is about economic relevance. And, unfortunately, Africa is on the margins of the global economy.

Despite constituting 17 per cent of the world’s population, Africa accounts for just 2.5 per cent of global GDP. Its share of global manufacturing is just one per cent. Its share of global trade is two per cent. And just three per cent of foreign direct investment goes to the world’s second-most populous continent.


What happens in Africa has little economic consequence for the rest of the world. There is nothing the continent produces or consumes at the moment that cannot be easily offset elsewhere. This is why markets don’t care what happens in Africa – because it is economically irrelevant.