The importance of unlikely allies in pandemic response

Tony Banbury (right), former head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, talks to survivors in Saniquellie, Nimba County, Liberia. Photo by: Martine Perret / UNMEER / CC BY-ND

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was unlike anything the world had faced, so it demanded an approach that went beyond the “traditional insular ways” of the United Nations, according to the man who coordinated the U.N. response, Tony Banbury.

Banbury, now the chief philanthropy officer at Vulcan Inc. in Seattle, remembered how he slashed red tape and broke the norms of interagency process.

"I had no concern whatsoever about dividing lines. It was just like, ‘We need smart people around the table figuring this out,’” he said Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. His team “grew exponentially, just like Ebola.”

The work paid off, and months after it began, the Ebola pandemic was quieted. Reflecting on that experience, while dealing with Zika, and preparing for what lies ahead, global health leaders gathered here noted an opportunity — and an imperative — to boost collaboration between the private sector, the public sector, and communities themselves.

That combination proved vital to defeating Ebola and shook up business as usual in disease response. But it was chaotic in its first instance.

"There was no plan to end Ebola,” Banbury said. "Everyone was doing good stuff, but it was responding to a problem in a location as opposed to putting together a plan to end the crisis."

Now, public health professionals here told Devex, cooperation now needs to be codified and normalized.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m realistic on what we need to do to be optimistic,” said Rebecca Martin, director of the Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There need to be more global structures.”

The Global Health Security Agenda is one example of the kind of coordinated effort that countries could take on in order to apply the lessons learned from Ebola and Zika and account for future threats, she said. The partnership of nearly 50 nations aims to boost local country capacity in disease response.

But these top-down efforts must work in partnership with bottom-up approaches, which were key to ending Ebola in Liberia, said Clara Doe Mvogo, the mayor of Monrovia, Liberia, in a panel at CGI on Tuesday.

Private sector engagement is equally essential to “keep it zippy,” said Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief. His organization partners with FedEx, whose expertise in delivery and logistics has direct relevance to emergency preparedness and response.

Breaking silos between these various groups is crucial, Tighe said. “U.N. people talk to U.N. people, NGO people go to NGO conferences, you talk to people a lot like yourself, which is limiting.”

The need for this sort of cross-sector response is growing — fast. “In the context of the new normal, I would argue that there is nothing new about it,” said Vishal Patel, senior director for global external affairs at the healthcare division of Merck KGaA. “Hopefully the new part is how we coalesce NGOs, governments, private sectors in an effective and efficient way.”

He urged everyone working on health emergency preparedness and response to get out of their comfort zones.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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