Beirut, Lebanon – The Ebola epidemic in West African states has brought an invisible conflict to an area that has been slowly recovering from devastating civil wars, and with it, a whole new set of challenges.
From the air-conditioned mall in Beirut where Lebanese businessman Antoine Yazbeck drinks his morning coffee, the Ebola epidemic seems remote. But having just returned from his tourism agency in Sierra Leone, Yazbeck saw up close the devastating impact the deadly virus has had on the country’s population, economy, and a way of life.
“People at first didn’t know what was going on with Ebola,” Yazbeck said. “They saw sick people going to places with people in white suits, and coming out dead. They were not educated about the disease and used to fear going into clinics. So they started hiding their sick relatives rather than sending them there.”
In the main streets of Freetown, however, Yazbeck said an uneasy fear of the invisible, deadly virus permeates. “There is nothing to see, nothing is different,” Yazbeck explained. “The traders are there, and the shops are open. The activity is there. But morale is low. People are scared.”
Traffic in and out of Sierra Leone is limited and monitored. Affected towns have been quarantined. All commercial passenger planes, except SN Brussels and Air Maroc, have cancelled flights into Freetown’s Lunghi International Airport.
A total of 491 people are suspected of dying from Ebola in Sierra Leone the World Health Organization (WHO) said last week, out of a total of 2,097 fatalities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.
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No one shakes hands anymore, taxis limit passengers to avoid bodily contact, and everything is doused in chlorinated water. Many government and business workers have been sent home. An evening curfew is in place, and the city’s beaches, and once bustling hotels, bars, and restaurants scattered across the capital’s hills, are nearly empty.
While most international NGOs and expatriates left the country, with its population of six million people, weeks ago, most long-term Lebanese businessmen are staying put.
Since local schools are closed, they are sending their families back to Lebanon, where children will enroll in schools this month. Many business owners carry dual Lebanese and SierraLeonean passports, and have worked there for generations.
The Lebanese population in Sierra Leone was around 7,000-8,000 before this year’s epidemic.
“During any crisis, the Lebanese are committed to the welfare of Sierra Leone. They sent home women and children, but adult business people will stay,” explained Lebanese businessman, Hisham H Hisham, whose father arrived as a trader in Freetown over 100 years ago.
During Lebanon’s bloody civil war, up to 25,000 Lebanese found safety working in Sierra Leone. Hisham, whose business once included exporting cocoa, coffee, and diamonds, weathered the violent conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 1990s, acting as an informal leader for the Lebanese community at the time.
Lebanon, a tiny Mediterranean country with just over four million citizens, has a diaspora that is four or five times as large, flung across North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Africa.
Ebola first surfaced in Sierra Leone in May, two months after Guinea’s first case. WHO said that more than 3,900 people, including 245 health workers, are now infected in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and warned that up to 20,000 people could be infected as the disease spreads from rural areas to cities. Nigeria and Senegal are the latest to report cases.
Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, like sweat, saliva, and blood. When a haemorrhagic fever takes hold, there is no cure. Survival odds are currently at 50 percent. Those who havepossibly been exposed face a 21-day incubation period, although the virus is usually detected in half that time.
People at first didn't know what was going on with Ebola. They saw sick people going to places with people in white suits, and coming out dead.
WHO is now advocating for potential cures, like ZMapp, to be rushed out to treat Ebola victims. The experimental drug was administered to 10 healthcare workers, three of whomrecovered from Ebola.
This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its Ebola page intended to clearly define what the disease was, the symptoms and the risk, and social media campaigns – through mobile phones and radio broadcasts – attempt to fight rumours with facts.
One fear is that with the number of Lebanese working in Ebola-affected countries, the virus could spread to Lebanon.
Dr Atika Berry Fawaz, who combats communicable diseases at Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health, sighed at the rumours. “On Facebook there are bad, false stories. For instance, one said there was a flight coming from Liberia to Lebanon. On board was a woman, already dead from Ebola. The crew wrapped her up in plastic and left her sitting in her seat for the flight,” Fawaz told Al Jazeera.
Fawaz said there is a team monitoring Lebanon’s airport, seaports, and al-Masnaa land border, and they have established protocols on treating passengers suspected of Ebola, both in the air and on the ground, where they will be transported to an isolation room at Lebanon’s Rafik Hariri University Hospital.
But businessman Yazbeck said his temperature was taken and written down on his Air France boarding pass at the Freetown airport last week. At his layover in Paris, he said the flight crew again looked at his boarding pass, presumably for the temperature. Then he arrived in Lebanon. “I said I came from Sierra Leone, and they let me in,” he said. “They did nothing.”
In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, Ali Fakih runs a real estate company and a newly renovated restaurant called Fuzion Afrique that caters largely to an expat crowd. Fakih’s family has roots in West Africa, first arriving in Sierra Leone from south Lebanon over 100 years before.
According to Fakih, Fuzion Afrique’s business is down 70 percent from the packed World Cup screenings this past summer. A blanket evening curfew has closed bars and restaurants throughout the city, he said, and hundreds of employees have been laid off.
“Economy-wise the situation in Liberia is extremely bad. People are really feeling the impact. If the situation lasts more than two months, it’s going to be a disaster, and very hard for Liberia to come back from such an economic low,” he told Al Jazeera.
The total inflow of money sent to family in Lebanon from relatives living in the diaspora is about $7bn annually, making up 16 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, according to Nassib Ghobril, a chief economist at Byblos Bank in Lebanon. He said he believed the Ebola crisis would not drastically impact the overall remittances flowing into the Lebanese economy, and that Lebanese in West Africa will stand by their investments.
“For the Lebanese in West African countries, as far as I’m concerned, it is business as usual,” Ghobril said. “They are taking precautions to protect themselves, but they are not panicking or leaving the country.”
Follow Rebecca Murray on Twitter: @Beccamurr