New York — When United States Ambassador to Liberia Deborah Malac needed help last month to support the arrival of international health workers, she turned to a private-sector group that had already inventoried their resources for a coordinated response to Ebola.
Malac told the corporate group that teams from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization needed to get to southeastern Liberia, a largely undeveloped region of forests and rivers, far from most basic services. Finding safe accommodation posed a problem, and communications, transportation and logistics could also be difficult, she said.
The response was swift.
Within hours, David Rothschild, executive director of agribusiness firm Golden Veroleum Liberia, which has palm oil operations in the country's southeast, offered housing he described as clean but "rudimentary" in two counties, Sinoe and Grand Kru.
William Cook, operations director of gold-mining company Hummingbird Resources, offered housing in a guest house with electricity and running water – rare amenities in the remote region – near the town of Greenville and in an exploration camp further inland.
In neighboring Sierra Leone, U.S. acting ambassador Kathleen Fitzgibbons cited the need for road grading and site preparation for an Ebola treatment center in the iron-ore producing town of Lunsar, which would be operated by the International Medical Corps. Within hours, London Mining, with heavy equipment available, came to the rescue, cutting weeks or more from the construction process.
The prompt corporate response is the result of a months-long preparatory process to coordinate actions that began with aggressive programs information and education programs. Since March, when the Ebola threat re-emerged in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, after a relatively small rural outbreak earlier in the year, companies with operations in the area had been preparing for an emerging crisis. By month's end, the disease had spread to Guinea's capital Conakry and was on the move through Liberia.
Companies forge Ebola collaboration
Four months before the World Health Organization declared Ebola a public health emergency on 8 August, the leaders of international companies with operations in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were evaluating their options for combating what they realized was a looming threat. Some of them started sharing information and ideas.
"Companies began doing what they do best," said Dr. Alan Knight, a scientist and Managing Director at ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company. "That includes understanding the impact on our own people and getting them to an awareness of how to protect themselves and their families. And we looked at the assets we had that we could use against the outbreak on our own patch."
After informal discussions in Washington, D.C. in early August, at the time of the U.S. African Leaders Summit, companies with operations and employees in the three most-affected countries were polled and a common spreadsheet – still being expanded and updated– was developed to show who has buildings, vehicles, communications infrastructure, machinery and health facilities and where they are located. Country teams were formed, with ArcelorMittal taking the lead in Liberia, London Mining in Sierra Leone and Rio Tinto and Alcoa in Guinea. Other companies volunteered services central to emergency planning and implementation.
Washington DC-based communications and strategic planning firm KRL International has helped connect the corporate group to the global response. "Some of these companies have nation-wide logistics and supply chains tested over a decade," said KRL founder and managing director Riva Levinson. "Many of them have thousands of trained personnel. Attaching these resources to the global deployment against Ebola can help bend the curve of the virus's spread away from the worst-case projection of 1.4 million by January."
Arcelor's London office organized two conference calls in August, followed by a third on 1 September. Participants on the second call included dozens of corporate executives, diplomats, representatives of first-responder health organizations working in the three most-affected countries and Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, a Geneva-based United Nations entity.
Although the discussion was polite and respectful, both health workers and company officials expressed frustration at what they saw as the failure of governments and global health institutions to mount an adequate response to a catastrophe in the making.
Pushing for greater response
"We were getting better at doing what we could do with our own people," said Knight, who oversees Arcelor's corporate responsibility and sustainability programs. "But at that stage, the advocacy role developed."
The same day, James Dorbor Jallah, the national coordinator of Liberia's Ebola Task Force, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "Ebola is moving at the speed of sound and the aid organizations are moving at the speed of a snail."
In an interview aired on the NBC television program 'Meet the Press' on 8 September, President Barak Obama said that two months earlier he had told his national security staff that Ebola was a top priority. He announced an assistance package that included over 3000 military personnel to implement the plan.
By then – according to front-line responders such as Medicines San Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders and the Christian group Samaritan's Purse, whose Dr. Keith Brantley was the first American Ebola case – a level of response that could have contained the epidemic earlier was now too little, too late.
The following day, 11 companies that were part of the Ebola group issued a statement supporting the deployment of military assets to fight the disease but urging "a larger coordinated global effort" on the scale of past responses to earthquakes and hurricanes.
When the United Nations General Assembly began in September, the companies numbered more than three dozen and were operating as the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group (EPSMG). Corporate executives came to New York to press the argument for a coordinated global response that included the private sector. They met with officials of the United Nations Office for Partnerships, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the United Nations Global Compact, which connects companies to the UN's peace and development agenda.
The Business Council for International Understanding (BCIU) convened a roundtable discussion in New York that the group's president, Peter Tichansky, called "an emergency, urgent discussion of the private-sector mobilization". It was the first physical meeting of a larger group of companies participating in the initiative, and it included government officials and aid organizations.
Rosh Bardien of London Mining, joining the session by phone, reiterated other companies' assurances to the governments and people of west Africa. "We will not abandon you," she said. "London Mining is very committed to the people of Sierra Leone. We will remain committed. And we will continue to work together to get through this crisis."
Enlarging the supply/logistics funnel
Levinson said that policy planners should take advantage of the extensive local presence of corporations in the three countries. "Now that Ebola's threat to the stability of the region and to global health security is evident," she said, "governments and individuals are offering support. But the reality is that the funnel to get personnel and logistics capability into these small post-conflict countries and distributed to the right places is limited. The private-sector network is already through the funnel and in the field."
ArcelorMital CEO for Liberia, Joe Matthews, said that companies have the ability to help alleviate critical shortages of staff and capacity, including speeding the construction of isolation and treatment centers that are essential to containing the disease.
"With our collective footprint in the three most affected countries," he said, "we have the wherewithal to provide logistical support to the various groups willing to mobilize personnel to these countries. Our companies can provide these medical teams and front-line health workers with transportation, drivers, decent accommodations, catering, laundry, as well as trained workers who can support this effort with administrative support. This would be an unprecedented private response to a global emergency – which can provide real support to those willing to risk their lives to help the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea."
ArcelorMital, for example, has 3200 Liberian employees and Golden Veroleum has 3400. London Mining employs 3,500 people in Sierra Leone, and the company paid over $37 million in fees and taxes in two years. Over 6000 Sierra Leone citizens work for African Minerals Limited and about 1000 Guineans work for Rio Tinto. They and other major investors say they are trying to keep basic operations going in the face of a sharp drop in expansion projects due to the withdrawal of contractors reliant on expatriate expertise.
Maintaining corporate operations – and putting some idled staff to work supporting the Ebola response - provides critical economic support to families and to the national budgets of the three hardest-hit countries. Liberia's finance minister, Amara Koneh, says the country's growth rate has already shrunk from a projected six per cent for this year to just over two per cent, a disastrous drop in government resources to spend on health and the Ebola emergency.
Gyude Moore, deputy chief of staff for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, attended the BCIU roundtable. Despite recent government and UN actions, he said, the virus is still running ahead of the response. "Two weeks ago we needed 1000 beds in Monrovia," Liberia's capital, Moore told the group. "We had 260." VIDEO: Ebola Steals What Makes Us Human.
He said all those turned away would be cared for by family and community members who cared for them, without means of protecting themselves, continuing the exponential increase in infections. Moore said the region's porous borders, with family members often living on both sides of an international boundary, demands a regional approach to stifling the virus. "So everything you continue to do for us in the region," he told the companies, "is deeply appreciated."
And the last decade of progress "is now threatened," he said, "by an enemy that is much bigger than even the civil war that we went through, that Sierra Leone went through."
EPSMG's corporate leaders also joined other private sector and organizational partners at a UN Foundation-sponsored panel on Ebola at UN headquarters, attended by UN Foundation founder and chair Ted Turner and President and CEO Kathy Calvin, which was followed by a high-level Ebola session hosted by the Secretary-General.
Arcelor's Matthews, speaking on the panel, pushed for shortening the lead time to get commitments made by governments and organizations converted to functioning interventions in communities. "Coordination is needed," Matthews said afterwards, "but it is secondary to getting moving. I'm sure there'll be mistakes along the way, but we're better off making mistakes and moving faster. That's the only way to bend the curve".
UN sounds the alarm
Moving faster may remain a challenge, especially for governments and international institutions, but the conservation around Ebola has shifted into high gear. A week before the session, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling the outbreak "a threat to international peace and security". It was sponsored by 134 member states, a record number for any Security Council resolution in United Nations history.
Tony Banbury heads a new UN Mission for Emergency Ebola Response (Unmeer) and works alongside Dr. David Nabarro, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's appointee as Ebola coordinator. Banbury paints a grim picture of the current situation. "Right now," he said, "the spread of the disease is exponential and the response is linear."
Every day after an earthquake or a cyclone, he said, things get a little better. "In this," he said, "for the first time in my career – and I've been doing this my whole career – every day, things get worse. A number of world leaders like [President] Jim Kim from the World Bank have said it, and I've heard it again and again: 'This is the most difficult, hardest, complex, frightening crisis any of us have ever dealt with."
Every day the danger of mutation and spread to other countries increases.
"It is very clear," Banbury warned the high-level group at the United Nations, "that this crisis is of unprecedented proportions and risks. It is not a public health crisis; it is much deeper and more complex than that. Whole societies are at risk. Years and decades of investment in development, in women and children and societies are at risk."
Private sector support is urgently needed, he said. "We need everyone in the room to please do something. And I hope the big companies will do something big."
Unmeer now has a director for private sector partnerships who arrived five days ago in Accra, Ghana, where the UN has established an 'air bridge' for getting supplies and logistics support to the three countries that have been semi-isolated due to the boycott by many international air carriers and shipping lines.
Despite the still escalating crisis, in a round of meetings in Washington DC last week, before returning to Liberia, the Liberian president's representative Gyude Moore delivered a message that tried to walk a delicate line between doom-saying and hope. "Our people are resilient," he said. "We can overcome this."
Levinson agreed – but with a qualification. "This is a fight we can only win as a global community," she said. "Our humanity demands that we support the affected countries, and our own national security requires that we stop the disease at its source. Putting up travel barriers, as some politicians and media are now advocating, will only prolong human suffering and make it more likely that we will be fighting this outbreak, including fighting it close to home, for years to come."
In an interview, BCIU's Peter Tichansky expressed fear that the Ebola crisis will "get a lot worse before it gets better" and said more funding is essential. "It's taking a while, he said, "and the urgency hasn't yet been totally felt."
Meanwhile, those dealing with the Ebola crisis up close are desperate for more and faster action. Antonio Vigilante, a United Nations official in Liberia, said late last month that Liberia alone needed some 1.3 million personal protective suits, and the need grows daily. The White House said yesterday that although the United States has procured 140,000 sets, only 10,000 have been delivered so far.