Conakry, Guinea – After seven years of hard work and conscientious saving, Issouf Balde was about to realise his life-long dream of fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam by travelling to the holy land of Mecca for the Islamic pilgrimage, but the Ebola virus dashed his hopes.
“My travel agent returned my money for the trip, saying that the embassy of Saudi Arabia has refused to grant visas to all pilgrims from Guinea for fear we could transfer the virus there,” the 62-year-old locksmith told Al Jazeera.
“Until a solution for the disease emerges, Muslims from Guinea will not be able to see Mecca. I’m completely shattered. It would have been my first time in [my] life and perhaps my last because, at my age, I don’t know when [I will] raise money for another trip,” he said breaking down in tears.
Guinea is becoming an undesirable destination to the world while its inhabitants are seen as automatic carriers of the Ebola virus and are vigorously pushed back from entering other territories.
Senegal was the first country to seal its borders with Guinea when the haemorrhagic fever first broke out in March. Many NGOs in the West African sub region had slammed Senegalese authorities for the “inhumane” decision.
But today, independent health experts in Sierra Leone and Liberia are chiding their respective governments for not emulating Senegal, which, according to them, could have choked off the spread of the virus to both countries where it has killed 638 and infected a further 1,329 people, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“People from other countries, especially Sierra Leone and Liberia, feel we Guineans are prostitutes of the Ebola virus, and that we are responsible for their growing woes,” Brahima Bah, a 42-year-old lawyer in Conakry, said.
“Nobody is happy to contract the virus and we Guineans are (at the time of publishing) not proud of the fact that it started here in West Africa, so why the blame and stigmatisation from everywhere? I was invited to a forum in South Africa but later told my place was cancelled because of the health situation in my country. We’re just victims of the Ebola circumstances.”
Guinea has borne the brunt of Ebola in the West African region as it struggles to contain the virus. A recent update released by Dr Sakoba Keita, director of prevention and fight against Ebola, a special department within the country’s health ministry, showed the death toll (at the time of publishing) had reached 373 from 506 cases of infection registered nationwide.
The southern city of Guéckédou is (at the time of publishing) the worst hit with 285 cases and 247 deaths, followed by the capital Conakry with 95 infections and 42 killed, while Macenta, close to Guéckédou, comes third on the tragedy chart with 29 deaths from 39 cases. The virus has spread to 11 of the 33 prefectures in the country of 12 million people.
Until a solution for the disease emerges, Muslims from Guinea will not be able to see Mecca. I'm completely shattered. It would have been my first time in life and perhaps my last because at my age I don’t know when to raise money for another trip
Despite efforts by the authorities to play down the country’s current health crisis in a bid to alleviate fears, many companies, expatriates, investors and tourists are leaving massively with no immediate plans of returning.
Besides Air France, no other major airlines fly to Guinea. Regional carriers have also begun shunning that destination, following the ban on flights from Guinea by several African countries including Ivory Coast, which recently denied entry for more than 100 Ivorian refugees returning home by road through the Liberian border.
Even Guineans who are compelled to travel home for family obligations must reroute their itinerary to land in countries bordering Guinea and go through by road.
France, the United States and Great Britain have counselled their citizens to avoid the Guinean destination until further notice. And although African countries are yet to hold back their citizens from travelling to Guinea, the ceaseless health warnings aired on radio and television about the Ebola virus are enough of a deterrent.
Every year, 7,000 Guinean Muslims travel to Mecca for the Islamic pilgrimage, which boosts business for airlines and travel agencies as well as traders dealing in clothes, bags, jewellery and perfume. However, this year will likely be dry for everyone due to the ban on visas imposed by Saudi Arabia.
Hotel business in Guinea is also grinding to a halt as tourists and visitors are hurriedly vacating their rooms while incoming ones are cancelling their reservations, according to Mon Beau Pays, a Conakry-based tourism firm which records arrivals and departures of foreign visitors, mostly from the West.
About $200m was invested in the Guinean tourism industry in 2013, according to a report released in February 2014 by the ministry of tourism, hotels and handicrafts. Seven new hotels, of four to five stars, are under construction in the capital, and are expected to boost Conakry’s accommodation capacity to 2,000 rooms, according to the report.
“Guinea’s tourism industry was about to take off this year but the Ebola crisis will likely drag it down [to] zero,” said Fatim Cisse, a 32-year-old female journalist, who has been covering the tourism sector for a decade.
“The recent investments in the tourism industry from the private and public sectors generated 2,000 direct jobs and 1,700 indirect jobs, and will increase hotel beds to more than 2,500 in Conakry alone. The future of the industry was very bright until the outbreak of this virus,” she said.
Since Guinea’s return to democratic rule in December 2010 with the election of President Alpha Conde, the country has maintained an unprecedented inflow of tourists reaching 130,000 each year, according to the tourism ministry, but this year could be its worst ever, Cisse said.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has also ordered the Guinean national team to play its home matches of September’s Nations Cup qualifiers outside the country after rival teams complained of health risks for their delegations.
Government under fire
Even as they keep blaming the world for its systematic rejection, many Guineans feel their government poorly handled the Ebola situation and is still not doing enough to protect the citizenry.
According to foreign epidemiologists currently working in Guinea, the outbreak began in the country in December 2013 but was not detected until March 2014. A two-year-old child died of the virus on December 6, 2013 in Guéckédou, which is situated close to the Liberian and Sierra Leonean borders.
A week after, his mother, his three-year-old sister and grandmother all died of high fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. A hospital worker in Guéckédou and two people who had attended the grandmother’s funeral left with the symptoms to their respective villages.
“By late January many people had started dying after showing bizarre symptoms, and when health journalists and local traditional rulers began to alert the authorities, they said there was nothing alarming,” Bah Mamadou, a secondary school teacher in Guéckédou, told Al Jazeera.
“Many sick people were turning to herbalists in various villages and towns for treatment and this movement caused the initial spread because some were crossing the border to Liberia and Sierra Leone. If Guéckédou and the few health centres in the city had been promptly kept in quarantine the subsequent havoc would have been relatively minimal,” he said.
Guinea's tourism industry was about to take off this year but the Ebola crisis will likely drag it to down zero
After five months of officially recognising the virus, no prefecture, city or town in Guinea has been kept in quarantine. And after much pressure from WHO, the government agreed to declare a state of emergency on August 13, but people keep travelling from one end of the country to the other like before. Guinea’s borders are yet to be shut down as a precautionary measure.
The opposition bloc has also blasted President Conde for travelling to Washington to attend the US-Africa Leaders Summit early August when the Ebola virus was devastating his country. He was supposed to remain at home and spearhead the struggle, the group said in a statement.
However, supporters of the government believe Conde’s trip bore fruit, notably a $200m aid package from the World Bank to assist health workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“Conde’s presence in Washington and meetings facilitated the release of the funds. Adequate resources will now be available for health workers who are combating the disease in the three countries,” lawmaker Bakary Diakite from the ruling Rally of the Guinean People (RPG) says.
“It is the responsibility of the government to protect the image of any country before the outside world, no matter the situation and that is what President Conde is doing,” he says.
Recent forecasts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggest Guinea’s annual growth will drop from 4.5 precent to 3.5 percent due to the Ebola crisis. It will perhaps drop even more if the ongoing health traumas continue.