Disrupting Ebola

A year ago I spent most of my time in West Africa leading a team of technologists determined to disrupt the Ebola Outbreak that was ravaging the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

While most people tried to avoid the dangerous virus and the region it ravaged, a small group of technologists, including a number of colleagues from NetHope member organizations and key people at a few UN agencies strongly believed that the only way to curb the outbreak was to improve information flow through effective use of technology.

In the fall of 2014 the battle against Ebola seemed to be lost as the number of infected and dead was growing exponentially. The problem was that it was being treated as a medical emergency, where the only intervention was to deploy more healthcare providers. Plans of building hundreds of treatment units with help from military were seen as the key approach.

Thankfully people realized that this was more of a behavioral problem than a healthcare problem. It was behavior, in particular burial rituals, that was causing the virus to spread much faster than it otherwise would have. But changing people’s behavior is a lot harder than one might think.

That is where technology helped play a role. It enabled information about the situation in each district to be shared and used to determine where to focus efforts. It helped pay the salary of large number of health- and social workers that instigated one of the largest behavioral change programs in recent times. Furthermore, it helped those affected communicate with their loved ones, even when separated by quarantine zones.

Disrupting Ebola required a combined effort of many organizations, organizations that understood the importance of information, communication, and technology in enabling change. It also required large scale communication infrastructure investments that came from donors who understood the catalytic change technology enables.

Even in times of crisis, like an Ebola outbreak, disruption plays an important role in enabling the radical change required to truly make impact and affect the situation. 

Published January 4th 2016 at LinkedIn