Could Ebola Fear Push Europe Toward a Recession? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Students at the National School of Health train for Ebola virus disease prevention.
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Ebola is so dangerous that the threat of it alone might have long-lasting consequences in Europe.

By Laura Secorun Palet

As it is through much of the world, Ebola is sweeping through Europe. Not the disease, but the contagion of fear and knock-on effects that are pummeling an economy already in danger of slipping into recession. In the end, politicians could pay the price.

Europe’s freakout in many ways resembles that of the U.S. But the hype is less about health or quarantines and more about elections and money. Just as in the U.S., where the issue has surfaced debates over a stalled surgeon general nomination and offered Republicans fodder in the upcoming midterms, in Spain, fear might get the health minister fired. In the U.K., an already-hot topic — xenophobia — is getting hotter. In Germany, polls show residents don’t want to bring a single Ebola patient in for treatment. And in France, well … in France, no one is much worried at all.

One thing is stronger than fear in Spain: outrage. 

It’s in sunny Spain where the shock waves from Ebola risk have been strongest. The infection of a nurse’s aide with the hemorrhagic-fever virus in Madrid was the first transmission outside of Africa and fueled fears of a Western pandemic. Fear is running high among the inhabitants of the nurse’s own neighborhood — Alcorcón — in Madrid. And for good reason: In the week it took to diagnose her, she came into contact with a whopping 22 people, all of whom are being monitored. Her dog was even put down — just in case. Doctors warn that the paranoia could soon reach new heights as the flu season approaches, since the flu’s fever and fatigue are similar to Ebola symptoms.

The nursing staff of the hospital La Paz showed their solidarity towards fellow nurse Teresa Romero, Ebola infected by attending a religious in the hospital Carlos III in Spain.

The nursing staff of the Hospital La Paz in Madrid, Spain, showed their support for a fellow nurse, infected with Ebola, by attending a religious service.

Still, one thing is stronger than fear in Spain: outrage. Spanish citizens are furious at the government for trying to shift the burden of responsibility to the nurse by saying it was a mistake on her part and asking for her resignation. “There were breaches in protocol that had nothing to do with that poor woman!” says Cristina Castillon, a 54-year-old hospital doctor from Barcelona. Castillon, who’s tried one of the protective suits used by health care workers, adds that many hospitals aren’t teaching proper protocol when it comes to safety equipment.

The Spanish government’s handling of Ebola could have political consequences. The opposition is asking for the dismissal of the minister of health, Ana Mato, who has refused to take responsibility, and a poll shows that 91 percent of Spaniards agree she should resign. And it’s not good for the image of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, either — he’s up for re-election in 2015. Rajoy has admitted the government could have done things better, but his apologies might be coming too late judging by social media responses. Spaniards are sharing satirical cartoons and critical articles about the government’s negligence and the shame of being the country that brought Ebola to Europe.

The French are taking a laissez-faire attitude.

On the other end of the shame spectrum is France, where the initial reaction is classic nonchalance. President François Hollande recently said, in a display of la bravade , that he believes la France could cure any cases of Ebola. After all, a French Doctors Without Borders volunteer who contracted the virus recovered after undergoing an experimental combination of treatments. Hollande’s also refusing to ban flights to Guinea “out of solidarity.” 

There have been several false alarms, including a particularly loud one on an Air France flight. Police imposed a lockdown on a social services center in a town near Paris after four people who arrived from Guinea this month fell ill with headaches and fever. Despite this, nearly 60 other passengers were allowed to go home. Yet most French people don’t seem particularly worried, or so initial polls show: Only one person out of three there is worried about catching Ebola, while two-thirds of Americans are concerned about an Ebola epidemic.

Despite Hollande’s assurances, the government’s continuing attention on the issue has frustrated many. “They are using Ebola to distract [from] the real issues: high unemployment, raising taxes, inability to deal with immigration …” Flore de Laval, a 27-year-old lawyer from Paris, says of the Hollande administration. “No one is really scared on the streets.”

Perhaps that’s in part because voters don’t have to judge Hollande until the 2017 presidential election. So in the interim, what’s at stake isn’t so much politics as money: There’s a rising fear that fear itself could harm the French economy. And the World Bank says that’s already the case; the consequences are visible in sectors like travel. Air France lost 16 percent of its passengers in September, and tourism-related businesses are losing value, like tour company Voyageurs du Monde, whose stock sank more than 4  percent last week.

The British are keeping calm and carrying on.

And there are the British, who are working to maintain that stiff upper lip. “There’s no fear here, certainly not like in the U.S.,” claims John Garrett, a 29-year-old musician from London. But it turns out it’s all about a different kind of fear — not so much of the disease as of the people who might be bearing it. Ebola is stirring accusations of racism after the first few cases of black people being refused medical attention or accommodations for fear they were carrying the disease. As Garrett says: “Certain communities are starting to be stigmatized.” Read: West African immigrants and other black people.

The U.K.’s vast mining interests in the West African region are already in danger. Mining companies operating in the area, like Glencore and AngloGold,  face serious logistical problems because of flight cancellations and are likely to see their profits plummet as the disease continues to spread.

“Ebola poses a very real short-term risk to mining companies operating in West Africa,” says Alison Turner, an analyst at Panmure Gordon. She thinks travel restrictions create a major logistical challenge for companies operating in the region and argues that convincing British expats to go back to the region could be a major problem. “When staff return to their homes at the end of their rotations, they are exposed to the fears of their loved ones and the opportunity to seek alternative employment.”

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