October 30, 2014, 7:00 AM EST
How does a company operate in the midst of a full-blown epidemic? For ArcelorMittal’s iron-ore operation in Liberia, it means trying to protect not only itself but also the community around it.
Executives at ArcelorMittal’s Tokadeh iron-ore mine in Liberia could have been forgiven if they felt a sense of relief a week into July this year. An outbreak of Ebola in the region in late 2013 was showing signs of running its course. For six weeks the country had been Ebola-free. Since then a few new cases had popped up many miles away, but the company had taken aggressive steps to protect its workers, so executives weren’t worried.
ArcelorMittal had even survived an unrelated protest on July 3 by aggrieved local residents claiming they had received inadequate compensation from the company for property. The demonstrators had turned violent, ransacking facilities near the mine and torching property. The attack was scary, but the perpetrators were quickly arrested. Company executives exhaled.
Only days later, on July 9, Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American who consulted for Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and had also begun working as a public health manager for ArcelorMittal in April, informed his colleagues that his sister had died. Ebola was suspected, and later confirmed.
Sawyer claimed that he had had little contact with his infected sister, but ArcelorMittal MT -1.23% referred him to Liberia’s Ministry of Health in Monrovia for 21 days of isolation and observation. Managers for the global steel giant, which kept paying Sawyer’s salary, stayed in regular contact with him during this period. They also quickly communicated the facts to avoid alarming workers.
For nine days, the company says, Sawyer repeatedly reassured ArcelorMittal that he was showing no symptoms of Ebola. He said he felt fine. Then he went silent. Two days later the company learned that Sawyer had left Liberia and traveled, by way of Ghana and Togo, to Nigeria. He arrived deathly ill at Lagos’s International Airport. Sawyer was rushed to a hospital, where he died three days later of Ebola. As terrible as his death was, there was a horrific coda: Sawyer had transported the disease to Nigeria, and the virus spread to 19 people there before it was contained.
The episode showed just how quickly—and insidiously—the virus can defeat the defenses created by the conscientious (ArcelorMittal, in this instance) and wreak havoc through a combination of epidemiological virulence and human frailty (in this case, Sawyer’s unwillingness to abide by the terms of his confinement). In a matter of days the company had moved from relief to having an employee become an international carrier of the disease.
This is a story about trying to survive and do business during an epidemic. Since emerging in Guinea late last year and then spreading into Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola has taken the lives of nearly 5,000 people, an official tally that is said to be just a third of the real figure. The predictions are dire: The World Health Organization estimates the number of infections in just Liberia and Sierra Leone could climb to 1.4 million by January. The World Bank projects the epidemic will gash a $32.6 billion hole in the impoverished economies of West Africa.
Nowhere has the outbreak been as devastating as in Liberia, a tiny nation that has so far lost some 3,000 souls, and where, in the heart of the hot zone, ArcelorMittal continues to run its mining operation. Even as Ebola hysteria has taken flight around the world, some 4,500 Liberians and 200 expatriates still carry on with the operations of mining, transporting, and shipping iron ore. It’s business as usual. Almost.
Interactive by Analee Kasudia
Click Dates to see spread of Ebola in West Africa
There are many risks to doing business in Liberia, but Ebola was not thought to be one of them.