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Little Christmas cheer in economies shattered by Ebola
[MONROVIA] Slumped behind a table in Monrovia's sprawling Waterside market, stallholder Massa Gborlie gazes forlornly at the rare Christmas shoppers who pass by, ignoring the goods she has on offer.
Normally the most lucrative time of year, the festive season has been transformed into a month of anxiety and boredom for thousands of traders in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
"Usually, every year from December 1 to 30 business is OK with us, but this year it is a different story altogether. Ebola has spoiled everything," she says.
Monrovia and Freetown have a combined Christian population estimated at a million, and yet in the streets, tinsel and nativity displays have given way to posters warning of the dangers of Ebola.
The outbreak has claimed more than 6,000 lives since it emerged in the forests of southern Guinea in December, but it is also killing off manufacturing and agriculture.
The World Bank said in early December the fallout from the epidemic would push the region's growth this year down below four percent and plunge Sierra Leone and Guinea into recession next year.
The cost to the two countries plus Liberia of closed businesses and curtailed investment will run over US$2 billion in 2014-2015, the bank said.
The mining sector is the cornerstone of the west African economies, which sit atop some of the largest deposits of iron ore, diamonds and other minerals in the world.
But two key extractors, London Mining and Africa Minerals, are facing difficulties in Sierra Leone, according to the government, while expatriate workers have mostly left Liberia.
More worryingly, agriculture is at risk and a food crisis is looming, according to the United Nations food agency, the FAO.
An FAO study in Sierra Leone found that 47 per cent of people questioned believe the crisis has seriously affected their farming activities.
Since the onset of the crisis, "buying power" - the measure of how far your dollar goes - has decreased by a fifth in Sierra Leone and by more than a quarter in Liberia, according to the UN.
In Liberia's bread basket province of Lofa, staple goods prices have risen between 30 and 75 per cent since August.
In Monrovia, the price of cassava, a woody shrub used extensively in west African cuisine and one of the most important food crops in Liberia, has soared 150 percent.
In the rare markets functioning normally, traders have been hit hard by the restrictions that came with Ebola.
Esther Jallabah, one of 900 bushmeat traders in Monrovia, borrowed US$3,500 to buy tonnes of produce before it was identified as a source of possible Ebola transmission and abruptly banned.
"Those I gave the goods to have not paid because they could not sell. I am highly indebted," she said.
The crisis has proved all the more calamitous because Liberia and Sierra Leone, among the world's poorest countries, are still struggling to recover from ruinous civil wars spanning the 1990s.
Across Freetown, a city of 1.2 million, clubs and bars have been shut down by emergency legislation while motorcycle taxis no longer operate in the evenings.
"I'm lucky not to have been laid off as some of my friends have, because business all round is bad," said Isata Kanu, 36, a secretary in a Freetown insurance company.
Sierra Leoneans are also losing out on the crucial backstop of remittances from abroad - worth around US$50 million a year, according to the World Bank.
While many developing countries rely on bank transfers from overseas relatives, Sierra Leoneans prefer the unofficial and cheaper method of moving money in person.
Freetown resident Jacob Smith has three children in the United States who usually give him US dollars via friends coming for Christmas.
"This year, things will change because they don't know of anyone brave enough to come so they will use a courier service which gives you local currency at a drastically reduced rate," he said.
Monrovia-based financial and political analyst Samuel Jackson says the crisis presents an opportunity for Liberia to take a new approach to the economy by stimulating growth.
"We need to start doing properly things we did not do well in the past, especially roads and electricity, which we can accelerate in the post-Ebola economic sector," he said.
"If we apply the resources effectively we can recover sooner and be better than pre-Ebola." Such optimism is in scarce supply on the ground, however.
"By this time, takings should have been high but they are not so. When you look at the stern faces of people, you must have guts to put a plate before them," a beggar in Freetown told AFP.
"People are holding on to what they have, not knowing what tomorrow will bring."