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Another Voice: The U.S. and Canada must treat the Ebola epidemic at its source

By Michael J. Armstrong

It’s time for North America to get serious about Ebola. The United States and Canada need to send massive support to West Africa to treat the epidemic at its source.

From Ebola’s outbreak in March, infections and deaths have been doubling monthly. In August, the World Health Organization declared an international emergency. Last week, WHO admitted it goofed by not acting faster.

Since then, we’ve been the ones messing up. The American and Canadian governments promised aid, but implemented little, allowing the epidemic’s growth to continue. Now suddenly we’re paying attention, but to symptoms rather than causes.

Airport thermometers won’t help much. Border closures wouldn’t either. Neither measure addresses the problem’s source. That’s bad medicine.

Consider a business analogy. When a company has quality problems, it can hire inspectors to check outgoing products. But they can’t catch every defect.

Or it can hire lawyers to claim nothing is wrong. But that just lets the damage grow.

Successful managers go to the “gemba” – the scene of the action. Find the problem’s source and give workers the resources to solve it.

General Motors could have fixed ignition switch problems in 2003. Instead, it’s recalling 2.6 million cars and paying hundreds of millions in compensation.

With Ebola, the costs of inaction are growing similarly. The World Bank optimistically estimates lost GDP in West Africa at $9 billion. If the epidemic spreads to nearby countries, that will jump to $32 billion.

It would cost us, too. For example, Ivory Coast and Ghana grow half the world’s cocoa. If the epidemic spreads there, growers could become too sick to harvest their beans, or shippers too nervous to transport them. Firms like Hershey and Lindt would lose half their chocolate volume. Speculators are already driving cocoa prices higher.

Our hospitals can handle the odd infected airline passenger. But it’s expensive, labor-intensive work. And what if travelers spread the infection to one of our less-developed trade partners, like India or Mexico?

The cost of tackling Ebola in Africa grows as we dither. Controlling it this month would require field hospitals for some 9,700 newly infected patients.

Since that isn’t happening, in November we’ll need care for 21,000 patients, and 46,000 in December. (By comparison, acute care hospitals in New York State total about 58,000 beds.)

A wait-and-see approach didn’t stop Ebola. Hiding in North America won’t either. We need an international coalition with “boots on the ground” in Africa to do that.

Michael J. Armstrong is an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and a member of the American Society for Quality.