The Ebola crisis in West Africa is believed to have started with an outbreak in Guinea in March of 2014. However, it was not until the summer that it started to gain global attention and in the fall when cases began being imported to Europe and the United States. Beyond the politics and bureaucracies of global public health, the Ebola crisis has demonstrated novel ways in which the private sector has supported the response either directly or indirectly. Understanding the role of the private sector in this response, both from a public health benefit as well as acknowledging the underlying business benefit, is critical to better integrating the private sector into disaster response.  

Examples of private sector mobilization

As a result of existing relationships and advanced planning between the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry, potential treatments and vaccines were able to be identified and moved further in the development process. There was also an increase in the production of medical safety equipment in anticipation of increased demand as a result of the Ebola crisis. Although there were still extensive wait times, the adaptability of global supply chains mitigated the impact to the both availability of resources, and the opportunity costs for the companies producing these resources.

The industries based in West Africa also took a pro-active approach to protecting their interests that supported the public health goals of reducing the spread of the virus. The early and effective response of the Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia has been cited as protecting over 80,000 people, while ensuring the preservation of agricultural resources critical to their business. The regions cocoa producers also took action that included donations to help stop the spread of Ebola in the region and promoting appropriate risk communication messages. This was driven by a need to prevent disruption in the primary cocoa producing countries of Ghana and Cote d’Ivorie, nation’s that remained free of Ebola throughout the crisis.

Perhaps one of the most interesting development was the establishment of insurance policies for the loss of operating revenue associated with an outbreak. The barriers to businesses reporting an outbreak are often due to fears of financial loss that can come from the uncertainty and disruption that the outbreak and massive public health response can introduce.  The development of these insurance policies helps mitigate the financial vulnerabilities that might be perceived to result from early detection and reporting. In doing so, it removes the disincentive to ignore signs of an outbreak.

Next steps – Going from anomalies to standard practice

Unfortunately, these examples of best practices are discrete events within a much larger and more complex global response system that largely failed to respond effectively and timely to this crisis.  But these individual successes give us important insights into how we can do better in the future.

First, the private sector should be integrated into meaningful public sector planning processes with candid conversations about how value is created and protected. This effort should strive to create a language of shared values that recognizes that the actions to enhance and protect the bottom-line can be the same as those that lead to better preparedness, response and recovery efforts.

Second, we need to understand the financial implications of an effective disaster response, and how much money it potentially saves when we are prepared. The failure of the preparedness community to measure return on investment has left it vulnerable to profound decreases in funding as the shock and awe of recent disasters fade from the political consciousness.

Finally, to rely on the kinds of response that we laud as best practices, it must become part of the fabric of strategic planning, organizational development and market valuation well beyond the preparedness professionals.

The much criticized response of the World Health Organization and other global institutions to the Ebola crisis demonstrates that reliance solely on public sector institutions is not a sufficient disaster response system. The cases of private sector action in response to Ebola demonstrates that there are alternate ways of approaching disasters that add value to the overall response. Identifying new ways for these parallel efforts to work in greater collaboration with each other will not only improve the response to future events, but will also increase resilience, and the ability for communities to recover stronger and faster in the aftermath of a major disaster.

Schlegelmilch is the managing director for Strategic Planning and Operations at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.