Ebola: The Disease, Canadian Government Interventions, and Economic Impacts

Raphaëlle Deraspe
Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division
(Aussi disponsible en français : Ebola : La maladie, les interventions du gouvernement canadien et les répercussions économiques)

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered” in 1976.

Several countries outside the African continent, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Cuba, have offered both financial and human resources to support West Africa.

The World Bank has warned that the outbreak could have devastating effects on West African economies. Canada and Canadian-based companies could also be economically affected by the epidemic, as Canada has investments in the African mining sector. So far, there isn’t enough information to assess the magnitude of the impact on Canada.

The Ebola virus since its identification

The Ebola virus disease (formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever) was first identified in 1976 in two different outbreaks that occurred simultaneously in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, known at that time as Zaire. Since then, there have been several outbreaks within Africa but none outside the continent. During the current outbreak, which began in January 2014, confirmed, probable and suspected cases of people infected by Ebola have been reported in eight countries: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal, the United States, Spain and most recently, Mali.

The WHO Ebola Response Team has estimated the case fatality rate at 70.8%. However, the rate may change by the time this outbreak ends and the outcomes of all infections can be determined. The WHO response team has also found that the majority of infected people are aged between 15 and 44.

Evidence indicates that the Ebola virus is contracted by, or transmitted to, humans only through direct contact with either the bodily fluids of infected animals or those of infected humans who show symptoms. Although there is the potential that the virus could mutate to become more easily transmitted, the United Nations (UN) Mission for Ebola Emergency Response recently has clarified that, at this point, there is no evidence to suggest the virus is mutating to become airborne.

Canada’s contribution to the international effort

As of 5 November 2014, Canada had committed to contributing roughly $65.4 million to provide health, humanitarian and security support in West Africa. This includes $30 million to the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response and $30 million to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other international non-governmental organizations.

In addition, Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada has provided $3 million to WHO and $1.7 million to humanitarian interventions led by Doctors Without Borders to reduce and control the spread of the virus.

Moreover, Canada is providing to WHO, through the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Health Canada, personal protective equipment that includes respirators, gloves, coverall suits, face shields and isolation gowns valued at $2.5 million. In addition, PHAC has donated 800 to 1,000 doses of an experimental vaccine that was developed by the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Finally, to facilitate rapid testing of potentially infected individuals and to monitor the effectiveness of infection prevention procedures, Canada has sent to Sierra Leone, through PHAC, two mobile laboratories, along with Canadian scientists.

As of 16 September 2014, the UN estimated that it will take $987.8 million to combat the Ebola epidemic. This amount would cover activities in the three most affected countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – for six months. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned: “Every day we delay, the cost of suffering will grow exponentially.”

Federal governments role in infectious disease outbreaks in Canada

In Canada, the responsibility to deal with emergencies, including public health threats such as infectious disease outbreaks, is placed first on the affected individual, then on successive levels of government, depending on the resources and expertise required.

Local public health officials are responsible for responding to local health issues. This includes identifying the source of an infectious disease outbreak and the isolation and treatment of infected people, as well as identifying and monitoring the close contacts of individuals who are infected.

However, in the event that outbreak spreads beyond local boundaries, or that it has serious human health implications, provincial or territorial health authorities responsible for providing health services would also be responsible for coordinating the health response and providing support to local authorities.

The federal government is responsible for creating emergency response plans and coordinating the health response through PHAC for an outbreak that involves more than one province or territory or that risks spreading into or out of Canada.

However, during domestic outbreaks or serious health threats, the federal government may also advise local, provincial and territorial health authorities on measures to be taken and best practices. It is responsible as well for monitoring outbreaks through global surveillance and by communicating with provinces and territories about potential health threats. Finally, provinces and territories can request assistance from PHAC if the necessary health response to a local outbreak exceeds their capacity.

To date, the federal government has taken steps to reduce the likelihood of an infected person with Ebola entering Canada by invoking its authority under the Quarantine Act. This allows quarantine officers deployed at Canadian borders and ports of entry to question, assess and, if necessary, detain travellers coming into Canada from affected countries.

Moreover, on 31 October 2014, Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister announced that “Canadian visa officers have temporarily paused the processing of visa applications from foreign nationals who have been physically present in a country designated by the WHO as having widespread and intense transmission of the Ebola virus.”

According to a WHO official, this decision contravenes the International Health Regulations, which “aim to limit interference with international traffic and trade while ensuring public health through the prevention of disease spread.” The WHO has asked Canada to justify its decision.

Economic impact of the epidemic

In the affected countries, the Ebola epidemic has disrupted economic activity in several key sectors, including agriculture, mining, manufacturing and transportation; it has also disturbed trade. However, according to the World Bank, the most important factor in these disruptions is changes in behaviour resulting from fear, such as mandatory curfews. Consequently, employment, income and demand for goods and services have all declined. Moreover, output has suffered because workers have fallen ill, died or have had to care for infected people.

The World Bank has estimated that Ebola will reduce the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 in the three most affected countries: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In Guinea, GDP growth will slow from an estimated 4.5% to 2.4%. In Liberia, it will be cut by more than half, from 5.9% to 2.5%. And in Sierra Leone, growth will slow from 11.3% to 8.0%.

The World Bank also estimated that the total economic impact for 2015 in the three most affected countries will be about $97 million in lost GDP under the “low Ebola” scenario, which corresponds to a rapid containment of the epidemic. Under the “high Ebola” scenario, which corresponds to a slow containment of the epidemic, the loss in GDP could reach $809 million.

In West Africa as a whole (including Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), the economic impact is estimated by the World Bank at $2.2 billion in lost GDP in 2014 and $1.6 billion in 2015 under the “low Ebola” scenario. Under the “high Ebola” scenario, the losses could reach $7.4 billion in 2014 and $25.2 billion in 2015.

Other West African countries are also economically affected by the Ebola epidemic because of various factors: their close economic ties with the affected countries; the behavioural effects resulting from the fear of contagion, such as the closing of land borders; and restrictions on the entry of citizens of affected countries.

Related Resources

Butler, Martha, and Marlisa Tiedemann. The Federal Role in Health and Health Care. Publication no. 2011-91-E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 22 September 2011.

Public Health Agency of Canada. Bioterrorism and Emergency Preparedness.

Public Health Agency of Canada. Responding to an Infectious Disease Outbreak: Progress Between SARS and Pandemic Influenza H1N1.

World Health Organization. Ebola Response Roadmap, 28 August 2014.

World Health Organization. Global Alert and Response (GAR): Ebola Virus Disease.