Sounding off on rapid response to Ebola and other crises

UNICEF receives more than 57 metric tons of medical supplies and equipment to fight Ebola. The goods, which arrived Oct. 7 at Conakry airport in Guinea, were funded through a World Bank grant. Photo by:  UNICEF Guinea / CC BY-NC

When disaster strikes and humanitarian relief is being delivered, supply chains are often strained to the max. In the face of this year’s Ebola outbreak — the largest one ever recorded — “delivering the right supplies in the right quantities to the right locations at the right time has proven to be a massive — and mostly unique — challenge, even for the most seasoned emergency responders,” Devex’s Manola De Vos wrote in mid-November.

Efforts to match supply to demand, streamline the procurement process and facilitate the downstream supply chain are underway. But it’s no business as usual; organizations involved in the logistical response to Ebola are “taking flexibility and adaptability to a new level — learning as they go, sharing lessons learned and testing new strategies,” De Vos concluded.

“With the calculations and forecasts of other major organizations that are buying protective equipment, we can guess the needs for the next six months. And we believe that by preordering 80 percent of this guess, we will definitely be under the reality of the needs,” Jean-Cedric Meeus, chief of emergency at the UNICEF supply division, told Devex.

Sam Lanfranco, director of ICT for science, technology and development at the Society for the Advancement of Science in Africa, responded to our coverage by cautioning against stockpiling.

“That is probably the wrong lesson to learn since most of the time scarce resources will go to stock supplies that will degrade over time and be wasted. There will of course be some waste, and that is factored into the assessments of adequacy,” the former board chair of the Canadian Society for International Health said.

Instead, the international community should create “robust second-stage contingency” plans, something that, according to Lanfranco, has been missing in the Ebola outbreak.

“As soon as it is clear that the emergency exceeds the planned response capability, a second redeployment phase should kick in, one that redeploys resources currently focused elsewhere,” he said. “When a fire hall responds to a fire call, the entire local fire system can reposition itself, not just the trucks going to the fire.”

One example of rapid redeployment, Lanfranco continued, lies in the “state-of-the-art material on Ebola that has been translated by scientific experts in more than a dozen languages, presenting the best possible scientific knowledge about the disease” by the University of Pittsburgh.

How would such a second-stage response have unfolded had the outbreak been on the northern shores of the Mediterranean?

Lanfranco: “I suspect that within days a flotilla of hospital ships would have been deployed by the military, from Europe, the Americas and beyond. This second stage capacity is there, and one is left to wonder why it, and similar capacity, has not been deployed in this crisis. Of course more attention and effort are needed to strengthen national health delivery system, and of course more resources for emergency planning will help, but even with both there is a need for a second stage resource redeployment response, and that is mainly a matter of will.”

What’s your take — and how do you think relief supply chains can be improved to prevent massive disease outbreaks like the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.