Role of the private sector in epidemic response and preparedness

By Jennifer Esposito, Health & Life Sciences, Intel Corporation

 In today’s interconnected world, pandemic disease threats have the potential to not only have a devastating human impact, but could also cost tens of billions of dollars to the global economy and private enterprise. These threats could exacerbate political and economic instability, and threaten the national security and economic interests of poor and rich nations worldwide.

We know the devastating impacts that disease outbreaks such as the H1N1 outbreak of 2009, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, or the Zika outbreak of 2015–16 can have on the health of populations. But such events continue to ripple through affected societies well beyond the health implications, and after the containment of the initial threat and the news coverage and aid have left. Geographies that are often most vulnerable to these threats are ones which already lack strong primary health care systems, leaving them unprepared for crises and unable to carry out routine health services in addition to providing surge capacity to prevent, detect and respond to emerging outbreaks.

Ultimately, these communities are left devastated with a diminished health system, as well as a diminished business sector and economy. One example of this is UPMC’s Infectious Disease Cost Calculator, which looks at the global economic burden of infectious diseases such as cholera and dengue. Families lose their earners and individuals are left with fewer resources to invest and save. Caretakers are left with less productive time, and the entire economy suffers. With lesser known emerging diseases that do not have effective prevention and treatment methods, fear plays an added role to crippling the economy, as individuals and communities sometimes take unnecessary actions to avoid infection; and on an international scale, actors may make decisions that slow economic activities with the affected regions. These economic impacts effectively impose food shortages, and cripple education systems, health systems and other essential services.

Given that companies operate around the world, across diverse environments and populations, they have an essential role to play here. Many of them work in key geographies that are especially vulnerable to health threats around the world, and thus, have an obligation to protect their workforces, and the communities and environments in which we operate. This is an investment in our business continuity, in our employees and in our communities, but it is also essential to ensuring economic prosperity throughout these societies and regions.

Additionally, companies have the resources and expertise, as well as the unique ability to mobilize business solutions to address challenges and scale up efforts. This applies to companies beyond the health sector as well, extending to industries including technology, supply chain and logistics, energy, food and beverage, transportation, etc., which can all leverage their core business competencies to advance global health security goals. The role of the private sector goes beyond the traditional donation model; instead it should be about deploying available technical expertise and strategic capabilities, such as in the areas of supply chain, logistics and technology, and data management.

Beyond the business case to engage, private companies are made up of individuals who are invested in the health and well-being of others, and we are seeing companies move more toward integrating corporate responsibility into their regular business operations, reflecting the changing attitudes when it comes to the private sector and social impact work.

As we approach the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people around the globe, health security remains a high priority on the global agenda and as health threats continue to increase in frequency and severity, it is essential to include the private sector in the discourse on how to strengthen systems for health security. Companies have an inherent stake in the issue, an imperative to engage, and – in collaboration with governments and multilaterals – they have a unique ability to do so.

About the author: Jennifer Esposito is the Worldwide General Manager for Health and Life Sciences at Intel Corporation. She is a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Private Sector Roundtable (PSRT) and Chair’s the PSRT’s Technology and Analytics Working Group.

 Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and confirm I have no conflicts of interests to declare.

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