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Africa's 'Switzerland' Bans Ebola — But At What Cost?

Port Louis is the capital of Mauritius, known as the "Switzerland of Africa" because of its wealth and its mountains. The country has banned visitors from Ebola-stricken nations. Paul Russell/Corbis hide caption

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Paul Russell/Corbis

Port Louis is the capital of Mauritius, known as the "Switzerland of Africa" because of its wealth and its mountains. The country has banned visitors from Ebola-stricken nations.

Paul Russell/Corbis

Most African nations have responded to their Ebola-affected neighbors by canceling flights and closing borders. The logic driving this isolationism has little to do with advice from the World Health Organization. WHO pleads that travel bans slow the delivery of medical supplies to fight the virus while doing nothing to stop its spread, and that properly screening airline passengers when they disembark is enough of a precaution.

The tiny island nation of Mauritius is the latest to join the NIMBY chorus; its Prime Minister has ordered that all foreign nationals be refused entry if they have stepped foot in an Ebola-affected country any time in the past two months. The maximum known incubation period for the virus is just 3 weeks.

Given the magnitude of the health challenge, it may not seem very important that a little African island half the size of Rhode Island has overreacted to a single case that was thought to be Ebola but in fact was not. (The feverish patient who caused the scare turned out to have contracted malaria.) But Mauritius is not only one of Africa's smallest countries, it's one of the wealthiest, nicknamed the "Switzerland of Africa" not only for its verdant hills but also its secretive banking regulations, which provide tax havens for African presidents, Indian contractors and US corporations.

So why does the new edict by Navin Ramgoolam, the Mauritian Prime Minister, matter? On one level the travel ban is just an inconvenience. It means that someone who does business in Nigeria, Africa's largest economy, where the virus seems to have been staunched, can't then fly over to play a round of seaside golf at a business conference in Mauritius.

On another level, it's a glaring sign of the disintegration to come. Zemedeneh Negatu, managing partner for Ernst and Young in Ethiopia, says that the Ebola virus has awoken old African distrusts. "If this is the reaction we have when we have one outbreak," he says, "Then how are we going to continue to be Pan Africanist? How are we going to be saying we're going to grow together as Africa?"

Negatu says that just as with the Asian Tiger economies, African nations have to trade more with each other to grow economically. Ebola, he says, has exposed "the fault lines" in intra-African relations.

That sends a negative image to Western investors, says Konstantin Makarov, managing director of the financial advisory firm Stratlink Africa. Stratlink's clients are mostly large Western investors who are increasingly ready to place their bets on Africa's impressive rise. But the reality of a rising Africa hinges as much on expanding trade between African countries as making sweet deals with the West or with China. If African officials continue to impose economic quarantines on each other, they might find Western investors drawing a red line around them.