The Criminal Side of Ebola

Even though the health crisis is and should be the most important thing, both domestic and international efforts to solve the problem will need to look at how the disease is affecting the whole region.

Estimates of how far the disease has spread in West Africa are unclear, but the effects are already very bad. With over 4,000 confirmed deaths, Ebola could kill more people in the next few months than all of the deaths caused by the wars in the region in the 1990s. Now that the infection has spread to the US and Europe, people in the Global North are paying more attention to the outbreak and what it means for global health. Few people are paying attention to the less obvious effects of the disease on West Africa. The effective lockdown of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia has had huge economic effects on those three countries. Their fragile markets after the war are cut off from the rest of the world, which slows progress to a stop. Ghana, which is not one of the “infected” countries, has canceled all conferences on its territory for the next three months, for example. Many international projects and programs meant to help the region develop on hold indefinitely until the situation improves. But the effect of Ebola on crime in the area is probably the most overlooked thing about the outbreak.

On the one hand, the story is strangely good: because of Ebola, criminal trafficking routes through the region have slowed down and sometimes stopped completely. Guns, drugs, and people are less likely to move around because of the risk of getting sick and border and internal control measures. Even oil theft in the Gulf of Guinea has slowed down because Nigerians are afraid of getting sick. So, if you just look at trafficking and transnational crime, which require the movement of goods or people across the land, you could say that Ebola has strangely helped fight crime in West Africa. There’s more to the story, though.

Even though West Africa is on the coast, it has had so many problems with land-based insecurity and lack of development over the last few decades that it has developed a severe case of “sea blindness,” or a general lack of awareness and disregard for the maritime domain. In 1973, Liberia exported more fish than any other country in Africa. In 2013, it exported none. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is very common in West Africa, which has one of the most abundant fisheries in the world. This is because there is no fisheries management there. Liberia and Sierra Leone have done a lot to stop IUU fishing in the last few years, with help from groups like the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Sea-Change. For example, last year, Liberia fined people $6 million for fishing without a license. Even though Sierra Leone is one of the most active countries in the area, EJF estimates that IUU fishing still cost the country about $29 million worth of fish in 2013. Because of this, one of the side effects of Ebola is that it gives the IUU fishing community a chance to do illegal things with less risk of getting caught because there are good reasons not to land the catch in “infected” countries. Even though IUU fishing doesn’t make as many headlines as piracy, it costs $23 billion each year, hurts the marine environment more and more, threatens food security in the long run, and, most importantly, in this case, is a key link crime to other illegal activities like piracy and trafficking. This also brings up one of the worst effects of Ebola that has to do with a crime: the end of anti-crime efforts and building people’s skills across the region.

Many international groups, foreign aid programs, civil society groups, regional bodies, and local actors have been working for years in the region to fight both local and international criminals. Criminal activity not only slows down progress in West Africa but also hurts Europe and other places. Because of the current outbreak, many of these efforts can no longer be made. Because criminal activity has stopped, there may be a long-term setback in development and capacity-building projects. This is because the organizations working on the projects that have been put on hold can’t wait for the situation to get better. Since many of the efforts are regional and involve countries inside and outside of the “infected” area, the effects can be felt all over West Africa. When anti-crime efforts are dismantled, this gives sophisticated organized crime groups the chance to find new ways to do things like trafficking, theft, and other illegal transnational business as the situation changes. One such change is the increase in illegal fishing that is going on right now. Also, when people can move around more freely again, there won’t be much left in the region to deal with the return of criminal activity.

Even though the health crisis is and should be the most important thing, both domestic and international efforts to solve the problem will need to look at how the disease is affecting the whole region. These second and third-order criminally-related effects, which don’t even take into account the small crimes and security concerns that come up because people are desperate in the “infected” area, have long-term effects on the whole world. If Ebola is not dealt with quickly and effectively, the number of deaths, effects on the economy, and instability it causes could last long after the virus is gone.

Dr. Ian Ralby is the founder and executive director of I.R. Consilium. Through this company, he and his team work with governments and organizations to solve complex security problems. Dr. Ralby is a leading expert on how to regulate, run, and keep an eye on private security companies. He often gives advice and helps with things that have to do with international law, international security, and maritime affairs. He has done a lot of work for governments in places like West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans. He has a BA in Modern Languages and Linguistics and an MA in Intercultural Communication from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He also has a JD from William & Mary Law School, an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge.

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