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The Ebola outbreak: project professionals responding to the threat

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I was recently asked by two different clients if our organisation had the physical presence and technical capability to support the delivery of several urgent medical research centre construction projects in central Africa. After further investigation I established that the background to the requests related to the recent outbreak of Ebola there.

My contribution was straightforward: a few calls, a couple of emails and a successful connection was established between the clients and our Central African Operations Director. These conversations always leave me thinking - what would it be like to work as part of the Ebola outbreak response on the ground in Africa? Is it the same as the response to COVID-19? The circumstances of an outbreak may be the same, but the situation and challenges are different.

Leading a pharmaceutical and life sciences sector team, I’m used to delivering complex and highly technical projects such as vaccine manufacturing facilities and biocontainment laboratories. Whilst these projects are always highly specialist requiring expert management, we are typically delivering in a stable, safe and controlled environment. But a project of this nature, dealing with an Ebola outbreak, is undoubtedly somewhat different. APM recently published report on managing projects in post-conflict and disaster zones which got me thinking on what it would be like to deliver complex large-scale projects of this level of specialism, in a demanding environment. I wanted to explore this further - investigating the challenge and emerging threat this epidemic presents, and understanding how project professionals are supporting the response to the Ebola crisis.

Concerns around the current outbreak

The World Health Organisation describes Ebola virus disease as severe and deadly with symptoms including fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and haemorrhaging. The fatality rate is around 50%. The BBC reported that this current outbreak in Uganda is proving more difficult to deal with than previous epidemics. The virus has been circulating in rural Uganda since September but outbreaks in urban areas are proving much more complicated to contain – the fatality rate is higher than previous outbreaks. The population density in Kampala and ease of mobility, including internationally, means the virus can easily travel through infected people. The current Sudan strain of Ebola also has no approved vaccine, so Uganda is working hard with three candidate vaccines being trailed as well as testing new treatment options.

How are project professionals supporting the response?

The project work associated with the Ebola response is complex and wide-ranging – as we’ve seen, the challenges are multifaceted. It draws upon the skills, expertise and knowledge from international government departments, militaries, non-government organisations, charities and consultants, plus various types of healthcare and project professionals. They are working hard to help contain, control, treat and ultimately defeat Ebola in situations that are often volatile, uncertain and where it is difficult to predict the results of actions. Tackling the outbreak, is like handling several, ever-changing projects all at the same time, with all stakeholders connected and engaged in all the different projects.

Examples of some of the project work currently ongoing:

  • Deployment of hundreds of NHS staff and medical experts to west Africa. Public Health England have also sent a team of experts, including epidemiologists, to provide expert advice on managing the outbreak
  • There is fast-track construction underway of six new Ebola treatment centres across Uganda
  • The provision of an additional 1400 treatment and isolation beds to combat the disease
  • Emergency scientific research and testing is taking place, to improve understanding of how Ebola spreads, and how to stop it
  • The building, running and staffing of three new laboratories in Sierra Leone to double the number of diagnostic tests that can be carried out every day in the region
  • Project teams are also working hard to fast-track human trials of an Ebola vaccine, that will immunise health workers and others to prevent the virus spreading further. It will also help to make candidate vaccines available for clinical trial and beyond, and then integrate this clinical research into the outbreak response and deploy vaccines with proven efficacy yet unlicensed as part of the outbreak response.

This is not your typical project or project environment. There are hundreds, if not thousands of stakeholders, and lives at risk. Managing the different moving parts becomes more difficult. Project professionals working in this type of setting need to manage constant change, extreme stress and biosafety risks, which is very different to more conventional project situation. Building infrastructure and ‘in the field’ is constantly evolving, unpredictable and volatile which makes it even more challenging and complicated.

Project teams face changing environmental pressures need:

  1. Compelling vision
  2. Common values
  3. Resilience
  4. Agility

This work requires flexible, adaptable and responsive project managers who can effectively manage the associated risks of working within a region that is amid an Ebola outbreak whilst delivering against planned objectives outputs, or benefits. Not an easy task.

For those project professionals currently working as part of the Ebola outbreak response, you have my respect. The successful containment of this epidemic will be built on the skills, expertise and resilience of the professionals engaged in this effort. We applaud you.

What are your thoughts? Are you working as part of the Ebola response? What are your main challenges?  Let us know in the comments below or share your story on the APM community platform.

Read the Managing Projects in Post-Conflict and Disaster Zones paper here


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