Over the past few months, countries, companies and individuals around the world have grappled with the complexity of how best to manage COVID-19, a pandemic on a scale no one alive today has ever experienced. Often there have been more questions than answers, and more needs than resources.

Imagine then, what could unfold in a country like Liberia where trusted experts are fewer, resources scarcer and healthcare capacity more limited. A country which has only just really recovered from the 2014 – 2015 Ebola epidemic which caused major loss of life and economic disruption. Ebola was more lethal and sudden than COVID-19, but the risks COVID-19 now poses to developing economies are just as severe.

When Ebola struck this region of West Africa, intergovernmental organisations and countries around the world mobilised resources and personnel to help. The private sector response to Ebola was swift and effective too. Not only did our mining colleagues in Liberia and London respond quickly and effectively enough for our mine, docks and offices to remain Ebola-free, we also led the creation of the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group (EPSMG) that helped create a supportive hub for the whole private sector in the worst affected countries. The EPSMG not only coordinated practical help, it also became the single private sector voice in conversations with intergovernmental agencies, most notably the United Nations. The role ArcelorMittal played in its creation and co-ordination was recognised at the highest level when we were presented with President Clinton’s Global Citizen Award.

Today, aid is being made available for the COVID-19 response in West Africa, with donor agencies like USAid offering multi-billion-dollar aid packages, but nonetheless, countries like Liberia need to be much more self-sufficient in their response to COVID-19 than they had been for Ebola. That’s because with COVID-19, nations are occupied with their domestic response to the crisis, unlike during the Ebola crisis, when West Africa had the world’s attention and support.  

So, in mid-March, when the World Health Organisation officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) called to ask if ArcelorMittal could replicate the EPSMG model. That request triggered several internal conversations. Simon Wandke, CEO of ArcelorMittal Mining, got behind the idea because it’s what Liberia needs. Scott Lowe, CEO of ArcelorMittal Liberia, was up for it too, so we started by creating a private sector group in Liberia, with Scott taking on the role of chair.

Concurrently, we also started a weekly West Africa-wide conversation, chaired by Alan Knight, our head of corporate responsibility and community investments. The call brings together interested stakeholders including the WEF and other NGOs, government representatives and companies representing many industries active in the region, totalling 30-40 voices across West Africa. Participants include members from Firestone, Ecobank, Total, APM Terminals, Henderson Risk, Africa Union, Verlonium, WEF, PWC, OBT Shipping – and ArcelorMittal, of course. The diversity of players here, covering sectors as wide-ranging as natural resources, banking, logistics and even management consultancy, demonstrates the power of collectives like this.

The objective of the country group is to help by doing what we do well, namely, coordinate the efficient use of resources, be that financial, or in-kind by way of goods and services, to:

  1. Support communications and community outreach, by raising awareness among the general population of how to recognise COVID-19 symptoms and prevent the spread of the disease, as well as debunking false remedies. This is critically important, because in Africa, mistrust of government and stigma associated with a positive result are endemic, so people tend to avoid being tested. Employers are well-integrated into communities and are trusted information sources, so are ideally positioned to effectively communicate messages that can help contain COVID-19. We are therefore running communications projects across West Africa to reinforce these messages.
  2. Help measure the spread of the disease by scaling up testing capacity in local communities and work to minimise under or misdiagnosis of COVID-19 cases, thereby curtailing its spread. Through enhanced data collection and analysis, the private sector can support effective decision making on managing the disease.
  3. Seek to better manage movement within and between countries to minimise disease transmission over wide areas by localising testing efforts, while mitigating supply issues arising from border closures by leveraging trusted private sector supply chains to centralise purchasing of goods such as testing kits, life support equipment and personal protective equipment. For instance, our mining operation in Liberia is working on bringing in rapid diagnostic tests and is looking at how it can use its supply chains and technical expertise to boost local laboratory capacity, as well as offering up its distribution channels to deliver those tests across the country.
  4. Once available, work out how best to support the equitable distribution of medical supplies, including any vaccine.
  5. Help support economic recovery through continuity of business and employment, to prevent lockdown measures turning a medical emergency into a humanitarian disaster.
  6. Seek to leverage any external support which may be available, such as aid from development agencies, including the package offered by USAid.

While the near-term objective of this project is on getting through this crisis, its long-term future will be decided on need.  The aspiration, however, is the project endures, is replicated in countries across West Africa and becomes a cohesive regional platform. At that point, it would need to be led by an established and authoritative independent body which would help to ensure a coordinated and collaborative private sector response to West Africa’s current and future challenges. What the group’s legacy may be however, is for another day. For now, we’re concentrating on tackling today’s challenges.