THE BLOG

Why We ALL Need to Care About 'Failed Health States'

02/19/2015 02:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

When Ebola arrived on our shores last fall, an obvious truth stared us in the face. In our increasingly interconnected world, disease cannot be controlled by passports. A global health crisis anywhere in the world can pose a humanitarian, economic and security threat everywhere in the world.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, I was fortunate to serve on a panel entitled "Pandemics: Whose Problem?", where we considered the lessons to be learned from the world's failure to respond to Ebola. As cities get bigger, international travel becomes easier, and antibiotic resistance increases, the risk of a major pandemic grows ever higher. If Ebola is a harbinger of the threats we will face in the future, we must act fast to dramatically improve our collective response.

In what can be characterized as an epidemiological worst case scenario, the 2014 Ebola outbreak West Africa struck at the crossroads of three countries where the devastating legacy of bloody civil wars, extreme poverty, lack of international investment in public health infrastructure, and a critical dearth of health care professionals left the health care system in total shambles. Just as we have failed political states, one could fairly describe these three countries as "failed health states."

As a business leader, I approach Ebola from a humanitarian point of view, but also as a global economic and security risk. As evidenced by Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, these "failed health states" are as dangerous to the world as failed political states. In our ever inter-connected world, we cannot turn a blind eye when a crisis in not in "our backyard." We all share a figurative "backyard," and every sector of society shares a collective responsibility to act swiftly and effectively to save lives.

What can be done? First, we must invest in the strengthening of public health systems in "failed health states." Second, we must bolster global infection control capacity through public education campaigns and proper stores of critical supplies. Just as the U.S. has a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the international community should develop a Global Strategic Pandemic Reserve, under United Nations or World Health Organization auspices, to ensure that necessary infection control products are readily available on a global scale. Third, we must strengthen our global health care human resource capacity. A Global Health Workforce Reserve modeled on the Army Reserves, as was recently recommended by professors at Stanford and Georgetown, is a promising concept.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need more effective disaster preparedness coordination among global constituents to reduce overlap and enhance efficiency. This includes the critical need for significantly enhanced resources for the World Health Organization. As recent events made abundantly clear, a major health crisis proved far beyond the capacity of the WHO to contain. Albeit imperfect, the WHO is all we have. We are penny-wise and pound-foolish if we do not provide the critical resources needed by the very institution we rely on to protect us from a global health catastrophe. The unanimously endorsed January 25 WHO resolution aimed at overhauling the organization's pandemic preparedness and response capacity is a promising development. Now it is the international community's responsibility to step up and ensure that the organization has the resources it needs to effectively carry out the job.

Engagement of the private sector is not only a moral imperative, but also a matter of enlightened self-interest. Companies best succeed when they earn the trust of their team, investors, supplier partners, customers and society through the creation of long-term economic value, a commitment to making the world a better place and a focus on building robust social capital within their organization. Business cannot succeed in failed societies.

As we have seen at Henry Schein time and again, no single sector can effectively address global health crises; public-private partnerships are the only effective solution. The private sector's critical resources, infrastructure, expertise and relationships can be leveraged to drive action, in partnership with the other sectors of society. For example, Henry Schein has pledged a donation of more than $1 million in personal protective equipment (PPE) to the CDC Foundation and our NGO partners to help stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Without the individual expertise of each entity in this equation, the effectiveness of this donation would be greatly diminished. And, in addition to partnerships between the sectors, close coordination among private sector actors can have a powerful impact. Henry Schein has partnered closely with Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) and United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) for many years in the realm of disaster relief, and by drawing on our combined expertise, our collective impact has been exponentially enhanced.

World Bank President Jim Kim expressed during the closing session in Davos that his goal for 2015 is to see the creation of a global, multi-sector initiative to effectively respond to pandemics. Count us in. Each of us has a critical role to play, and we in the private sector stand ready to support a global disaster preparedness initiative that includes multilateral stakeholders, NGOs, medical and disaster relief specialists. As I noted in Davos this year, "We await the call and we will come."

The world's attention, now riveted by Ebola, can lead to a renewed focus on learning from the mistakes of the past and the development of an effective, coordinated, global emergency response strategy. If we have learned one lesson from the Ebola crisis, it is that we have not learned the lessons of all the previous crises. Let us not lose this opportunity to save lives right now and countless lives in the future, while also reducing the tremendous economic and security risk that "failed health states," and the threat of pandemic, pose to the world.

Stanley M. Bergman is Chairman of the Board and CEO of Henry Schein, Inc., a Fortune 500® company and the world's largest provider of health care products and services to office-based dental, animal health and medical practitioners, with more than 17,500 team members and operations or affiliates in 28 countries. www.henryschein.com.