Progress in the time of Ebola

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope…”[1]

Dickens could be surfing cable news today and make that statement with relevant context, 150 years later. One need not look far for examples of wondrous change, awe inspiring innovation as well as head scratching confusion. The latest Ebola outbreak (tragedy) is a perfect example. I am hoping this incident will be a harbinger for change as society’s challenges become more – not less – complicated. Key lessons and insights from the latest tangle with this devastating disease must teach us and we must vow to learn.

Our processes and capabilities used to predict and manage crisis need improvement – especially in the areas of health and humanity. We also need increased focus in the area of medical research. Specifically, we need to improve the efficiency of innovation in the field: focusing on the processes that foster innovation and drive change. Those processes must be re-architected to drive exponential progress.

This era of instant information, big data, and global reach, provides us tremendous opportunity. We instantly experience everything from knowing where our friends are vacationing, to seeing the transparent effectiveness and progress (or lack of) across our societal systems and controls. It is this transparency that causes me to struggle to understand why we are facing an Ebola crisis in the U.S.

I totally understand; this is a highly complex situation and a devastating disease. The latest outbreak requires an immediate and urgent response. It must be contained and controlled (and preferably eradicated) so that no further suffering takes place. What is confusing is the management of the issue. I cannot understand why it must be done in what seems to be a state of perpetual panic by a “bewildered” populace. Is it possible that we are this unprepared? Ebola is not new. Presidents and pundits have been commenting on the latest situation since the beginning of the year. Opinions ranged from Armageddon to “remain calm, we almost have a vaccine.” The last outbreaks in 2012 claimed 50 lives[2]. Ebola is not new; the Ebola virus was discovered in 1976[3]. Think about your life and lifestyle in 1976; not much has changed…oh wait, a LOT has changed. This is another example where our systems and processes have not evolved enough and we mistake managing crisis for proactively preventing the crisis. Corporations and governments alike invest so much in problem management; in some cases more than in problem prevention.

Why? A result of fearing the unknown: we become absorbed in managing in a familiar way while focusing on familiar issues – it’s easier that way. Add to this the fact that we celebrate the hero who saved the day, instead of the one who prevented the issue in the first place – prevention is not newsworthy by today’s standards.

Our processes and capabilities used to predict and manage crisis need improvement – especially in the areas of health and humanity.

Since the year 2000, there have been over a dozen documented outbreaks of the disease[4] with a 50% mortality rate. Yet, even as the trends showed an increasing number of incidents in the last 14 years versus the preceding 20 years, there is still no cure. I could speculate that since this has been more of a third world problem, it hasn’t been given the attention it deserved from the West. However, it is now a first world problem and although hindsight may be 20 / 20, the ever increasing mobility of populations over the last 40 years, could have been a hint that this disease would not stay in the jungles of the Congo for long. This was a first world problem long before now.

Flash forward to today’s headlines; opinions and facts are mashed together as the pundits pontificate on past prophecies, and the proverbial fingers point furiously to find the next scape-goat. Add to the mix, sound bites anxiously detailing all the activity to address this frightening situation. Government agencies scrub and clean the facts. There is a desperate search to find order in the chaos of events. A thorough case study, with a multi-pronged, multi-national, multi-billion dollar action plan will be necessary to satisfy any congressional investigation committee. It must be developed – and possibly executed. Drug companies scurry to develop and then determine how to produce the urgent orders for vaccines, obviously at a premium cost and subsequent premium price; all in the midst of feverish cries looking for help to stop this disaster! Press conferences, presidential pep talks; calls to action; all hands on deck!

Why? Why must we continue to tackle our problems in such a reactive manner? Why, with all of the data and information, haven’t we found a way to see and be ready for crisis that is real, that is a risk? Why are we not proactively taking opportunities to avoid crisis not only in our cities, but in cities that will have an impact on our cities? We go to war to “prevent” issues with our energy needs, right? Why can’t we lend hands of peace to fight disease? Futurists, pundits and prognosticators alike have pleaded with us to take notice. We have exponential growth in social media, but not in medical research[5]. Perhaps a little less conversation and a little more action[6] is what’s keeping us from the necessary breakthroughs. Debating whether something could be an issue has become more popular than fighting the issue. Hiding behind bureaucracy and managing crisis (instead of preventing) should no longer be a strategy.

There is a desperate search to find order in the chaos of events.

This tragedy’s legacy must drive change. Hopefully, the inspiration to change will not be at the expense of more human collateral damage…otherwise known as Life. Refocusing our attention to create societal systems that are more preventative than reactive as well as improving the innovative processes to achieve exponential innovation within the medical industry are necessary to ensure we stop self-inflicting crisis and move forward with real progress.

Years ago, as my family and I were petitioning for Green card approval in the U.S. blood test were required to check for any communicable diseases: AIDS, malaria and whatever else; I was more than willing to comply. I was asking for the privilege of living and working here so, why would I object? While we waited for the medical attendant, my daughter began with her usual list of probing questions, including “why it was necessary to have a blood test?” She was concerned for obvious reasons. I responded with, we were ensuring that we don’t harm other U.S residents by spreading disease. Her next question was both unexpected and brilliant. She thought for a moment, then asked “So why didn’t they check us when we moved here 2 years ago?”

What could I say? From the mouths of babes; the question was valid. My family had been in the U.S. for about 2 years on a work permit. The green card application had begun just after we arrived. I can only hope that wisdom finds its way into whatever she decides do with her talents. I do have faith that her insight and curiosity is contagious and that perspective does help the search for change…perhaps we will have reason to celebrate…if we vow to learn from our experiences.

The next line of the Dickens quote was left off on purpose; because I have hope.


[1] Charles Dickens A tale of two cities 1859

[2] WHO Table: Chronology of Ebola outbreaks updated Sept 2014

[3] World Health Organization Fact Sheet #103 updated Sept. 2014

[4] World Health Organization Fact Sheet #103 updated Sept. 2014

[5] Zero to One, Peter Theil. 2014, interpretation of comments

[6] Song lyrics written by Mac Davis and Billy Strange, performed by Elvis Presley 1968

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