Firestone vs. the CDC: A Case Study in Ebola Reponses

Firestone Central Office tire sitting on bricks

Most of us consider the actions of a private, for-profit company as self-interested and, therefore, almost always questionable if not evil.

At the same time, most of us consider the actions of a government, especially the federal government of the United States. to always be concerned with what’s rationally best for “the people” and, therefore, automatically and almost always virtuous and well-intentioned.

Yet consider the Ebola crisis. If has not, at least yet, developed into a full-fledged disaster. Depending on how much, or in what way, the disease spreads, we’ll know in due course. However, we already have a compare-and-contrast example of how the federal government can be expected to respond in a medical crisis, and how at least one private company, seeking to protect its employees in Liberia, has responded. reports:

Today, Firestone workers and their families make up a community of 80,000 people across the [Liberian] plantation.

Firestone detected its first Ebola case on March 30, when an employee’s wife arrived from northern Liberia. She’d been caring for a disease-stricken woman and was herself diagnosed with the disease. Since then Firestone has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus at bay. Its built its own treatment center and set up a comprehensive response that’s managed to quickly stop transmission. Dr. Brendan Flannery, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s team in Liberia, has hailed Firestone’s efforts as resourceful, innovative and effective. [Source: 10/6/14]

Now wait a minute. A profit-driven company cares about its employees? But why would that be? Companies only care about profit, right? It’s governments and politicians who “put people first,” not big “fat cat” companies. Right? Sure, some companies are driven by compassion rather than profit. But it’s certainly not profit motivating them when they’re nice, correct? Firestone has no rational self-interest in making sure its employees don’t get sick, right? They don’t really need those employees, after all.

Or at least, so the conventional reasoning goes.

Contrast this with the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the federal government.

Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Fauci: “British Airlines have suspended all flights to and from the infected areas of Africa. Should the U.S. do the same? And should we impose a visa ban on anybody coming from these three countries in Africa?”

“No, in my opinion absolutely not,” Fauci responded. “Because when you start closing off countries like that, there’s a real danger of making things worse. You isolate them. You can cause unrest in the country. It’s conceivable that governments could fall if you isolate them completely.”

Fauci said suspending flights would make it difficult to get supplies to West Africa. “They need help. They need equipment and they need health care workers to come in,” he said. [Source: 106/14]

Notice how Dr. Fauci’s premise differs from that of Firestone’s. Firestone’s goal was to protect its employees, and to prevent the spread of the illness. Sadly, some would die, but that was unavoidable. The crucial thing was to prevent as much death as possible.

Dr. Fauci, on the other hand, is talking about factors external to, or unrelated to, the disease itself. He’s talking about the stability of other country’s governments, or possible unrest growing in the country. He’s worried primarily about people in Liberia dying from the illness, not people in the United States — you know, the people he’s charged with protecting. The key here is: Putting other people first. And putting political considerations above health.

Spoken like a true physician who has worked for the government far too long. His political credentials are impeccable. But by medical standards, he’s a disaster in the making.

Health officials like Dr. Fauci work for the government. While most of us naively assume that the government exists to protect us, that’s not necessarily the case. Dr. Fauci’s statements, and the government’s actions, make it clear: The federal government is most concerned with not offending particular pressure groups. For example, the kind of people who give Dr. Fauci power and keep most of our current politicians in power would raise holy hell if you did something like propose any kind of quarantine or flight ban, even a temporary one. In their eyes, this would be tantamount to punishing less well-off countries and injuring the feelings of nations in West Africa and elsewhere. We can’t have that.

Once again, contrast this with the response of the private company, Firestone, in Liberia:

When the Ebola case was diagnosed, “we went in to crisis mode,” recalls Ed Garcia, the managing director of Firestone Liberia. He redirected his entire management structure toward Ebola.

Garcia’s team first tried to find a hospital in the capital to care for the woman. “Unfortunately, at that time, there was no facility that could accommodate her,” he says. “So we quickly realized that we had to handle the situation ourselves.”

The case was detected on a Sunday. Garcia and a medical team from the company hospital spent Monday setting up an Ebola ward. Tuesday the woman was placed in isolation.

“None of us had any Ebola experience,” he says. They scoured the Internet for information about how to treat Ebola. They cleared out a building on the hospital grounds and set up an isolation ward. They grabbed a bunch of hazmat suits for dealing with chemical spills at the rubber factory and gave them to the hospital staff. The suits worked just as well for Ebola cases.

Firestone immediately quarantined the family of the woman. Like so many Ebola patients, she died soon after being admitted to the ward. But no one else at Firestone got infected: not her family and not the workers who transported, treated and cared for her.

Firestone was not concerned with political correctness. It was not concerned with hurting anyone’s feelings. It was motivated by what motivates any successful, for-profit organization where self-preservation requires acting on rational self-interest.

No human being is infallible, and this includes any private company. It would be just as naive to blindly trust any and all private companies or corporations as it would be to trust the government.

But the lesson here should be clear. Politicians and governments don’t really have much accountability, not even in the United States, especially not anymore. We’re all kind of holding our breath right now and hoping that Ebola does not turn into a catastrophe. It might not. If it doesn’t, that will be good news. But we’re still left with the awful and unsettling truth: When there ultimately is some kind of real disaster or calamity, we can only count on the federal government — including even the Centers for Disease Control — to care about political concerns, more than about what really makes the most sense from a public safety, medical or individual rights point-of-view.

I know that to most people it’s shocking, if not inconceivable, to think that we should leave medical care to the private sector, especially in emergencies. But how does the federal response in the Ebola case strengthen anyone’s confidence in the willingness of the federal government to act rationally in the midst of a developing, potential or actual health care emergency?

Consider the example of AIDS. A lot of people have claimed that AIDS, which has almost reached the equivalent of a cure through the scientific wonders of pharmaceuticals, was resolved by the federal government. But that’s not ultimately true. It’s true that the government spends a lot of money on research. However, that research would be worthless and meaningless without large companies both able and willing to bring those life-saving drugs to market. Everybody thanks the government for more or less curing AIDS; but nobody thanks the profit-driven motive that made such treatments feasible and possible in the first place. As for research, it’s paid for with taxes (or borrowing), meaning it’s ultimately paid for by the private sector. Without these taxes, private companies (and private research institutes) would make it their business to do the research required to develop the drugs; in fact, they already do.

The fact that companies like Firestone, in one case, or life-saving drug companies, in another, make a profit at what they do only taints the achievement, in the eyes of most people who consider it. People like Dr. Fauci, and others who spend their careers in the world of politics more than medicine, would prefer to live in a world where there is no profit, no self-interest, and probably no self-responsibility, either. We think it’s rationality and science motivating him, but Dr. Fauci’s words and claimed beliefs show it’s not public health he’s after; it’s public approval, or at least approval in the eyes of the politically correct government world in which he operates.

Such views are neither realistic nor rational. That’s why, in the end, you cannot count on such people to save you. If you’re the praying sort, then pray or hope for the spirit, the technology and, yes, the profit motive of the private sector to help save us from disease and disaster. The government will never be able to do it. And our present government seems hell-bent on actually harming us, if anything.


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