Business bandaid: corporations take on the fight against Ebola

Corporations from Panasonic to Mediclave are stepping up to help tackle Ebola

When it comes to public health crises our instinct is to look to NGOs, government and aid agencies to avert, or mop up, disaster. But with resources strained to breaking point, what about other sources of help?

Increasingly, UN and public officials are calling on corporations to step up to the plate. Global crises affect global firms, too. Ebola is one issue where businesses can play a role – and not only with their chequebooks.

International health problems don’t come much more complicated or deadly than Ebola: the blood virus has hit West Africa hard, infecting more than 18,000 people to date. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, himself a doctor, called the epidemic the “worst I’ve ever seen”, causing economic as well as humanitarian havoc.

“No other modern epidemic has been so destructive so fast,” Kim wrote in The New York Times.

Treating Ebola and halting its spread is resource-intensive. It cost more than $1m to treat one patient and track all of his or her contacts in Senegal, according to the World Bank.

Drumming up private sector funds is important. But the goods and services that are part and parcel of their business are just as useful in tackling the disease and its repercussions, as the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is proving.

In Sierra Leone, now the worst affected country, public-private sector cooperation will help avoid the spread of Ebola. South African company Mediclave is providing eco-friendly sterilising machines to dispose of contaminated protective equipment. The machines use high-pressure steam and vacuuming to decontaminate waste such as syringes, protective suits and gloves before they are thrown away safely. In the longer term, the equipment can also be used to treat other diseases.

UNDP has also teamed up with national telecoms companies in the country to make sure frontline staff get paid. The partnership will coordinate government payments to Ebola response workers such as burials teams, health personnel and community workers.

Private sector tie-ups will also be key in dealing with the aftermath. Electronics giant Panasonic donated a first batch of 240 solar lamps to Liberia. The lamps will be given to Ebola survivors, whose belongings are destroyed when they test positive for the disease, as they leave treatment clinics. Quarantined homes and health workers in Monrovia will also get lamps.

“Businesses are now helping us fight Ebola with unprecedented innovation and creativity,” said Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, director of UNDP’s regional bureau for Africa. “Their contribution will also stay in those countries on the long-term, serving very important basic needs.”

Crises such as Ebola highlight how corporations can leverage their assets and know-how for public good – and that there is increasing pressure to do so. In September, a group of businesses operating in Liberia set up the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group (EPSMG). The group includes firms such as ArcelorMittal Liberia, Exxon Mobil, Putu Iron Ore Mining, Total Liberia and Chevron. Originally conceived to make sure its members did not pull out of the country when Liberia most needed support, its members have also offered their logistics and construction expertise to the effort.

The fight against Ebola illustrates the baby steps firms are taking in the aid arena. In the upcoming issue of Philanthropy Age, we take a look at other businesses using their corporate muscle to fill in gaps in the development sector, from food aid to medicine delivery and money transfers. It’s time for some fresh thinking.

Photo credit: International Medical Corps/ Stuart Sia