Why the power of business is crucial in the response to Ebola

Sue Adkins, International Director, Business in the Community, writes about the vital and unique contribution business can make to fighting the spread of Ebola.

Today Mali has confirmed its first case of Ebola, while the first Ebola case in New York - and the fourth in the USA - was diagnosed. The World Health Organisation's emergency committee held talks this week to discuss the Ebola epidemic, and EU leaders pledged to boost aid to combat Ebola in West Africa to 1bn euros.

Latest information suggests the disease is still a major concern, infecting over 9000 people to date, with more than 4800 deaths resulting.  New cases outside Africa have shifted public, as well as government and businesses’ perception of the problem from being a humanitarian disaster affecting people “over there” to one which could have a significant impact closer to home.

So, as well as doing everything possible to contain outbreaks at their source and support affected communities, governments, NGOs, the UN and business are pledging finance and  taking action to mitigate against further spread.  Their concern around this isse was very clear from the discussions during the webinar The Power of Business in the Ebola Response delivered in partnership between UN OCHA, Business in the Community (BITC), PHAP and the UN World Humanitarian Summit on 17 October.

Local action and an international response are underway, focusing on the main affected countries. Full understanding of what is needed to effectively combat the disease and the specific needs is developing, but not yet complete. The situation is fast-moving, with people on the ground, coordinating organisations and their communications hugely stretched.

Even so, there have already been notable successes.  Last week both Nigeria and Senegal were declared free of Ebola1.

This shows what is possible, with effective collaboration between governments, NGOs, business and communities being key to success. The particular context in Nigeria is also important. Nigeria has a population of 177m people, with 22 million concentrated in Lagos; Nigeria also has more doctors and hospitals per person than most African countries and has teams in place to investigate outbreaks of diseases like cholera and Lassa fever.

It is the re-purposing of existing resources and facilities together with collaboration between all parties that has been critical. This has included the re-purposing of a ‘command centre’ funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fight polio, to coordinate and focus on the Ebola response, along with Nigeria’s Port Health Services.  The support of the airlines, and a presidential decree allowing the access to mobile phone records to enable law enforcement officers to track down people potentially at risk have all combined to help enable this ‘spectacular success story’, as WHO representative Rui Gama Vaz described it.

So, how can businesses, along with governments and NGOs help recreate this success story elsewhere in the region? The health infrastructures of the countries currently affected are hugely stretched, and need much more support. The UN, through the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) is playing a vital role in coordinating and directing international responses, drawing on its existing programmes, resources, and expertise in large-scale crisis relief.

Local governments, health and other infrastructure in Ebola-affected countries are at breaking point. The UN, DFID and NGOs are hugely overstretched in dealing with the Ebola outbreak. Business and communities each have unique and crucial contributions to make and roles to play.

Companies operating in the region, given their actual or potential exposure, are well underway in their thinking and action on how to respond effectively, using local knowledge to best effect. An example is the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group, which formed in August 2014. Brought together to give a platform for dialogue amongst major mining companies operating in the affected countries, in an effort to share information about the disease outbreak, containment efforts, commercial impacts across the West African mining sector and increasingly about advocacy, the group has grown to include other businesses operating in the area. Independently and collectively, these businesses understand both the business case for action and the broad base of support that can be given on concert with government, UN and NGOs.

Other businesses locally and internationally, who may not necessarily be directly affected by the outbreak, are also playing their part, with support offered going beyond simple cash donations to tap into companies’ unique contributions of specific products, services, skills and expertise.  Our recent research looking at international disaster relief in general found 78% of NGOs reporting such business offers of non-financial support as of great value2.

We’re seeing companies coming up with more creative responses than traditional philanthropy, and asking how what they have could be used to address the crisis.  For instance, as asked during the webinar, could the stockpiled resources brought together to address the bird flu’ epidemic, be repurposed? Or could call centre skills be used to help field call and offers of support to the UN MEER or DFID?

Businesses can help in many ways.  Remaining economically active in the region and supporting the recovery of the affected economies is essential; as is ensuring employees, families and communities are aware of the disease and are taking the best precautions; and sharing experience resources and expertise with stakeholders.

Consider and offer your relevant products, services, skills and expertise - your unique contribution. As has been shown in Nigeria, collaboration, thinking creatively about the use of existing infrastructures and resources, coupled with identifying general and unique business contributions can reap great results, and could save many lives.

For more information, please contact Sue Adkins: sadkins@bitc.org.uk

1. 42 days since the last confirmed case of Ebola, the WHO definition of Ebola free.

2. Business' unique contribution: International disaster relief