Nigeria has confirmed just 18 Ebola cases and seven deaths so far, making containment a less daunting task than elsewhere. But the virus is still crossing borders: Senegal became the fifth West African country to record Ebola in late August.
Though ASKY was particularly exposed because of its prominence across the sub-region, other airlines are also being affected. Nigeria’s Arik Air, Gambia Bird and Air Côte d’Ivoire have all either suspended or deferred the launch of flights to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Sierra Leone, in fact, announced a four-day national shutdown early in September. Travel bans have further been imposed by the governments of the Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Senegal, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa. Outside of the continent, British Airways has grounded its routes to Liberia and Sierra Leone; Dubai’s Emirates Airline has suspended Guinea flights; and Air France has stopped serving Sierra Leone, having initially vowed that it would preserve links to all Ebola-hit countries.
In what was either a flagrant overreaction or a thinly veiled commercial move, Korean Air cited Ebola as a reason for suspending its Kenyan route – despite the East African country recording no cases. The exodus is particularly frustrating for global health officials, who are at pains to stress that the virus is not airborne – unlike the SARS epidemic of 2003 – and only becomes contagious after the onset of symptoms. That makes civil aviation a relatively low risk factor for transmission.
“Right now there is a superior risk of the response effort being choked off because we simply cannot get enough seats on enough airplanes to get people in and out, and get goods and supplies in,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s emergencies chief, told reporters. “We assume that the current restrictions on airlines will stop within the next couple of weeks … This is absolutely vital.”
That assumption may be overoptimistic, with paranoia among local populations forcing governments to take proactive, highly visible measures – regardless of their effectiveness. Even once airlines get the go-ahead to resume flights, subdued demand for intra-African travel will likely impact frequencies.