(Co-authored by Ann Sheehy, Department of Biology, College of the Holy Cross.)
The Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s mini-World Cup, is played every two years by the national teams of 16 African countries who have competed in a series of qualifiers to play in the final tournament.
Like the World Cup, the tournament site moves between various host countries and, until earlier this week, the 2015 games were scheduled to kick off in Morocco on January 17. On Tuesday, however, fears that the Ebola outbreak in west Africa would spread to Morocco led the country to abandon its plans to host the upcoming event after having its request to postpone the competition by a year denied by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
CAF is now scrambling to find another country to hold the finals and has expelled the Moroccan team from further participation in the tournament. Morocco’s refusal to host the tournament, which pandered to the worst fears about this disease, is based both on bad science and bad economics.
It is completely reasonable for any country to want to take appropriate steps to prevent the spread of the Ebola epidemic which has so far killed more than 5,000 people, primarily in the west African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The Africa Cup of Nations, however, is an unlikely candidate to promote the further spread of the disease.
From an epidemiological standpoint, since Ebola victims are contagious only once they show symptoms, the disease is not likely to be spread through attendance at football matches. Those showing symptoms will be too sick to travel, and those well enough to travel will not be contagious. Even if a fan travelled to Morocco during the 21-day incubation period for the disease and then began to show symptoms, the fact that the disease is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, not casual contact with other fans, means is unlikely to be a significant source of transmission.
The case against a delay in the tournament is even stronger. Thus far, the overwhelming majority of victims are either those living in poverty with little or no access to sanitation or routine medical care, or people engaged in primary health care provision. Neither group is likely to have the time or the resources to make the 2,000 mile journey from the disease epicentre to Morocco this coming January.
Finally, like most boosters’ claims about the economic impact of major sporting events, Morocco’s estimates of the number of visitors that the event would bring were wildly optimistic. Morocco’s sports minister Mohamed Ouzzine said the country was expecting an influx of between 200,000 and 1m fans. The idea of one million arrivals from infected countries is scary indeed but also completely laughable.
The 2006 World Cup in South Africa, a tournament with twice the number of teams, a much higher level of prestige, and entrants from the wealthiest, most populous, and most football-mad countries in the world, resulted in an increase of roughly 200,000 visitors to the country. There is simply no way a minor continental tournament will draw even close to the same number of fans as the world’s premier sporting event.
And in footballing terms, of the three countries at the centre of the outbreak, Liberia has already been eliminated, and both Sierra Leone and Guinea are longshots to make the final slate of 16 teams. Without their teams in the tournament, there is little reason for fans from the infected countries to make the long and expensive trip to the Cup of Nations. Even if Guinea, the team with the best chance to advance, were to make it to Morocco, the number of additional arrivals from this afflicted country is more likely to measure in the dozens than in the thousands.
In the end, hats off to the Confederation of African Football for not succumbing to an irrational fear of the disease. Now the hard work of organising a new tournament in another country in less than two months begins.