The Inversion Equation: Chronic versus Episodic Disasters
Should corporate executives consider broadening their response to the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa? If so, when? Wait. Before you answer these questions, here are some thoughts you may want to consider before making a decision.
Chronic and episodic humanitarian disasters are approached differently, yet the scope and long term affects can be far greater with the former. A chronic humanitarian situation is a protracted crisis where conditions which persist over a period of time lead to ongoing suffering. An episodic crisis happens within a defined shorter period. As a frame of reference, think Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2004 famine in Darfur, Sudan.
Both disaster events resulted in significant numbers of displaced people, and lives lost. However, chronic humanitarian disaster events, because of their prolonged nature, often result in greater human suffering. While related factors such as civil unrest, corruption and geo-political strife certainly are noteworthy variables, the span of “time” also plays an important role in shaping perceptions which may ultimately influence decision-making in framing a response. In particular, the crescendo nature of chronic disasters may give false hope that the situation is being contained. It’s only when conditions reach a critical mass that resources are mobilized in large scale. By then, it’s often too late.
Let’s look at the current Ebola humanitarian crisis in four Western African nations: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria. On August 27th, there were more than 3,000 reported cases of Ebola, and 1,400 confirmed deaths. As of September 2nd, the death toll had risen to 1,500. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is predicting 20,000 people may be impacted by the deadly virus. As it stands, this is already the largest outbreak in documented history.
At current levels, there’s no infrastructure to appropriately contain the Ebola outbreak. Now, just imagine conditions with a seven-fold increase in cases, spanning across more countries and densely populated urban centers. Health workers are particularly vulnerable, and quarantine centers are described as “places where people go to die alone.”
Back to “time” as variable in dealing with chronic and episodic disasters. On Monday, August 29, 2005 in the early morning Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coastline of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi as a category 4 storm with maximum winds of 174 miles per hour. By Saturday, September 3 the Superdome in downtown New Orleans was fully evacuated. All totaled, 1,833 people perished.
When charting deaths and time variables, the slope is inverted when comparing episodic and chronic disasters data. Time distorts the assessment and evaluation of the response to an evolving humanitarian crisis because it is difficult to make immediate funding decisions on predictive data and logic. Yet with Ebola, more time equates to more cases and ultimately more deaths.
Back to the original question. Should companies engage to address the growing Ebola crisis, and when? The answer is yes. We recommend executives begin now by fully understanding the scope of the disaster. The World Health Organization (WHO) published an Ebola Roadmap that prioritizes actions to prevent the spread of the disease. The private sector can play an important role in providing in-kind supplies and support, ensure critical supplies are dispersed into affected regions, and fill resource gaps when they arise.
As always, your thoughts are welcomed and encouraged.