The Business Community Prepares for Ebola

October 23, 2014

As Ebola continues to grab the public’s attention, the political and the clinical aspects are commanding the largest headlines in the media. This is understandable for coverage of an infectious disease outbreak in an election year. Beyond the sensational and the clinical, however, there is also coverage that touches upon the vulnerability and potential benefit of a well-coordinated response with the business community. While the term “public-private partnership” is used frequently in our national Homeland Security dialogue, the current Ebola Outbreak in West Africa and its impacts domestically offer a glimpse of how a disease outbreak and our business communities intersect. In some ways the relationship is direct, whereas in others it is less obvious but similarly important.

Ebola Training Photo GalleryIn addition to corporate donations and social responsibility campaigns, there are also significant business implications in manufacturing goods to support the response. This is most pressing currently with the development of pharmaceuticals [1] [2] [3] and equipment to protect healthcare workers against bodily fluid exposure [4]. In particular is the sudden surge in demand for the development and manufacturing of products in a business environment that favors highly efficient, just-in-time production and delivery systems in non-emergency times. Companies can, and are, surging to meet this need, but from a step behind if relationships are not pre-established with public health and emergency managers in anticipation of scenarios like this one. There is also a business case for this, in that any unmet demand results in an opportunity cost by having an insufficient supply to meet customer orders.

In the impacted areas of West Africa, there are stories of companies and trade organizations taking steps to protect their staff and their livelihoods. A rubber plantation in Liberia has created a rare sanctuary from Ebola with robust medical support and evidence-based infection control procedures. As the disease has been defeated within their corporate community, they are carefully opening up their services to those affected outside of the plantation workers and their families [5]. Ghana and Ivory Coast, which account for half of the world’s cocoa production, have not been directly affected by cases of Ebola. However cocoa as a commodity has surged on concerns of what a disruption to the flow of production from small farms in these countries would have on the world’s supply of chocolate [6]. Cocoa producers, recognizing the threat, have taken steps to increase short-term production [7] and to provide support to the fight against Ebola [8]. These examples illustrate how companies can meet humanitarian and economic interests with their operations.

Employees at a foreign exchange brokerage sit at a computer terminal under electric boards flashing the current figures of Japanese yen against dollar and stock market in Tokyo, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Asian stocks fell Thursday amid worries about the strength of U.S. and European recoveries and the first American case of Ebola. Japan's Nikkei 225 index lost 1.7 percent to 15,815.45 points. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)Businesses are also looking at preparedness programs to keep their workers safe, and if necessary, compensated if they become exposed or ill [9]. It is important for businesses to protect their most valuable asset, and also to provide access to information and assure job security for the individuals employed by them. Companies are also recognizing the risk that faces them if business is disrupted. In response to this, insurance brokers have developed policies to cover revenue interruptions related to Ebola and other outbreaks [10]. This allows a business to manage the uncertainty that situations like this present. It is also important to the tax-payer that businesses have this as part of their contingency planning without requiring government intervention and/or having to resort to closures and lay-offs.

In the reality of global supply chains, community-based manufacturing, and privatized health services, being bottom-line oriented and humanitarian do not need to be in conflict with each other. In fact, these objectives are often in line with each other when the full impact of prevention and effective response is appropriately valued. With the many teachable moments that Ebola is presenting us with, the nature of our business communities as partners in response is deserving of a more robust understanding. A more thorough articulation of the value that is created through these collaborations can speak to the interests of both the shareholders as well the public.