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Ebola crisis: All hands on deck

The Ebola epidemic is a tragic and multi-level crisis.  Thousands of people have died and thousands are infected. The economic devastation is widespread. And the already weak healthcare infrastructure in the affected countries has nearly collapsed. Hospitals are not functioning, doctors and nurses are staying away, and citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are unable to receive even the most basic of healthcare and medical support.

While the world’s attention is understandably focused on the response to Ebola the secondary and tertiary affects of the crisis are going unnoticed. Mothers are forced to give birth at home or in the streets; patients suffering from malaria are unable to receive vital drugs; preventable diseases are going unaddressed; and heart attacks and appendicitis are leading to unnecessary deaths.  This could well pose a longer lasting impact on the health of these countries than Ebola itself.

{mosads}The unprecedented economic impact this crisis is having on these fragile states will also likely last for years to come. The World Bank recently estimated that the “two-year regional financial impact could reach $32.6 billion by the end of 2015”.  The price of rice (main food source) in Monrovia has doubled. Local laborers earn less than $200 a month while a bag of rice that used to cost $13.00 now costs more than $22.00. Unemployment is soaring; many of the large international companies that employed local laborers downsized or ceased operations altogether.  Local businesses are cutting hours to avoid interacting with customers.

With such a multi-layered crisis it seems as though an all-hands-on-deck approach would be the answer.  Unfortunately it is not.  A key element of the global response is being ignored – the commercial sector – the businesses already in the affected countries. They operated prior to the outbreak, during, and will be there after. It only makes sense to leverage their capabilities to augment any international efforts.

Today businesses are able to immediately assist in re-opening access to general and urgent health care services and definitely able to assist in minimizing the devastating economic impacts. Unfortunately companies already on the ground ready with logistics support, medical assistance, and donated goods cannot find an organization that is coordinating efforts.  Pledged money, donations and critical services are sitting on the sidelines.

Engaging the private sector will not replace governments, international organizations or NGOs, but only strengthen the response IF coordinated.  The US Embassy in Liberia is trying to reach out and coordinate but they are overwhelmed.  The coordination and direction must come from senior levels in the United States and the United Nations.

In today’s world, health is a shared global challenge and when a crisis of this magnitude occurs an all-hands-on deck policy is crucial. The private sector can and should be engaged (beyond donations) and used for rapid mobilization. This would save time and money because they are already in country. Lack of engagement with these precious resources in this crisis isn’t just unwise it is negligent. This has been a topic in the US aid community for some time. We are running out of time.

To avoid a bigger disaster we must act now. Our response efforts must learn lessons from past mistakes.  By engaging the international companies who are present and the private medical providers we can firewall a complete healthcare system collapse in the affected countries. We can stem the devastating economic impact.  America should leave no asset on the sidelines.

Rogers is managing director and CEO of Aspen Healthcare Services, which operates a clinic in Monrovia, Liberia.

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