Fear of epidemic drives Chinese from Ebola-struck Sierra Leone
By Frankie Taggart, AFP
August 28, 2014, 12:26 am TWN
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone--Li Luming carefully straightens a tablecloth in his empty restaurant in Sierra Leone's capital as he laments the damage Ebola has done to business.
It is a pointless gesture — the table, like dozens in the "Beijing Restaurant," has not been used for weeks — but it is important to keep going, to show the staff that it's "business as usual."
A favorite of locals and Chinese expatriates alike for more than a decade, the restaurant has seen just a handful of customers since June.
"With Ebola, everyone is afraid. No one wants to go out," 50-year-old Li tells AFP at the 70-cover eatery in Freetown's Murray Town district.
Li has been in the capital for two decades but, like many entrepreneurs in the once-thriving and influential Chinese community, he is thinking of packing it in and heading back home.
"Before Ebola, all the Chinese and some foreigners came here to eat. Now nobody comes. We have no customers. We may have to close," he says.
Ebola, a virulent tropical hemorrhagic fever, has claimed almost 1,500 lives since the start of the year in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
Eastern Sierra Leone has been particularly hard-hit, but a death in Freetown has spread fear that the capital could be in line for a wave of cases.
The quarantining of eight Chinese medical workers was particularly shocking to their compatriots, say members of the community in Freetown.
An exodus by Chinese business would be calamitous for the commercial centre of Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest countries still struggling to recover from a ruinous 11-year civil war which ended in 2002.
The Chinese embassy estimates the community in Freetown to number only "several hundred," a spokesman told AFP, but its influence extends far beyond its size.
Dozens of Chinese restaurants, hardware stores, machine parts manufacturers and construction firms can be seen across the sprawling city of 1.2 million people.
Chinese contractors have built bridges and roads, Freetown's national stadium, government and parliament offices and a 100-bed hospital close to the capital.
Beijing has invested in agriculture, health care and education in Sierra Leone since 1971, when diplomatic ties were first fostered during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution in China.
Investment tailed off during the civil war, but China has since emerged as Sierra Leone's second-biggest import and export partner, after the European Union.
Trade between the two countries stood at US$109 million by 2010, and total Chinese direct investment amounted to US$51.2 million.