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West Africa’s Ebola epidemic has started affecting mining operations, and companies feeling the pinch are pushing back. They’re pressuring governments and calling in ambassadors to demand international help to battle the crisis.
A few are evacuating staffers — international workers only — but others said they wanted to stick it out. Some are laying aside competitive differences to work together to help medical charities as the epidemic spreads out of control. The numbers of people infected and killed by the virus have doubled in less than a month, the World Health Organization says.
This week, the CEOs of 11 companies operating in the region sent an open letter to world governments asking for more help right away.
“We need it to happen faster and we need it in country and on the ground,” said Bill Scotting, chief executive of ArcelorMittal Mining, one of the companies. “Those resources have to come from out of country and they need to come fast.”
“We need it to happen faster and we need it in country and on the ground."
WHO says it will take at least $600 million to even begin to turn back the epidemic, which has now killed nearly 2,300 people and infected twice that number. “If not controlled, you will see an exponential increase in loss of life,” Scotting said. “Time is not on our side, and we need to raise the level of urgency and the speed at which the international community reacts on this.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) says the U.S. has committed more than $100 million to help. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday it was committing $50 million. ArcelorMittal says it’s spent at least $1 million for medical supplies, fuel, chlorine, mattresses, vehicles, satellite phones, information campaign materials and other resources.
Although WHO doesn’t recommend it, some airlines have stopped or limited flights to affected countries. “There are only a couple of carriers going in. It makes it harder to get the resources you need,” Scotting said.
“There is a risk the measures being taken to restrict travel to the countries most impacted by the virus will aggravate the growing humanitarian crisis,” the 11 CEOs of companies such as ArcelorMittal, gold mining firm IAMGOLD Corporation and others wrote in their open letter.
“Ebola is without doubt a horrific virus. But it is a virus that with the right understanding, precautions and processes in place should be avoidable and containable. That’s why we are calling for the immediate opening of humanitarian and economic corridors to the affected countries and urge the international community to … lift any travel bans in accordance with the WHO recommendation.”
It’s not affecting mining operations yet for ArcelorMittal, an international steel maker that mines iron ore in Liberia. But work on expanding operations has been slowed considerably, Scotting told NBC News.
Companies are worried about profits but also about workers, Scotting said. “We talking about individual lives here,” he said. “We are talking about the economic development of whole communities.”
Organizations such as ArcelorMittal have an outsized influence in a developing nation such as Liberia, and they’re making use of their direct access to President Ellen Sirleaf and her ministers, as well as to ambassadors from other countries.
“We believe we have a voice which can be heard, which the average Liberian doesn’t have,” Scotting said.
"They just want to get them out of Dodge."
Dr. Robert Quigley, vice president of medical services for International SOS, says his company has evacuated “hundreds" of foreign staffers from the region. But he says companies that normally compete have laid aside their differences to work together against Ebola. “Their effort is to influence the amount of money that has been committed to this effort to contain disease,” Quigley told NBC.
He says the companies are cooperating with nonprofit groups that are on the ground trying to help fight the epidemic. Most, if not all, of the major international companies operating in the area are members of International SOS, which helps companies plan for and cope with emergencies.
“They are paying attention and they are doing what they are told, because they know if they don’t the consequences will be dire,” Quigley said.
Before it’s over, International SOS will likely have helped to evacuate thousands of employees, Quigley predicts. “They just want to get them out of Dodge,” he said.