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Steven VanRoekel describes the United States’ role in the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis

On February 11, 2019, The Institute of World Politics hosted Steven VanRoekel, the Chief Operating Officer of the Rockefeller Foundation for a lecture entitled “Diplomacy Through Aid: The 2014-2015 West African Ebola Epidemic.” In the talk, Mr. VanRoekel recounted his experience working as the Chief Innovation Officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Ebola crisis. 

Mr. VanRoekel was introduced by Dr. John Lenczowski, the Founder and President of the IWP, who called him a “rare commodity in Washington.” Prior to working on the Ebola crisis at USAID, Mr. VanRoekel held various roles in President Obama’s administration, including Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Before entering the public sector, Mr. VanRoekel spent his career at Microsoft. Mr. VanRoekel’s work, Dr. Lenczowski noted, is relevant to the mission of IWP because it encompasses all different parts of statecraft, including instruments of soft power.

Mr. VanRoekel began the lecture by describing the lethalness of Ebola – it can kill its host in five days and becomes most virulent at the point of death. In the spring of 2014, the outbreak originated in a village in Guinea, where a young boy interacted with an infected bat. What made this outbreak so large and dangerous, Mr. VanRoekel noted, was the fact that the disease moved to heavily populated cities, where disinformation was rampant. To citizens, it was unknown whether the epidemic was a “public influence campaign” or a “real health crisis.”

In the fall of 2014, as the outbreak spread and the possibility of the disease leaving West Africa or entering a military zone grew, Mr. VanRoekel and the U.S. began their response to the epidemic. Mr. VanRoekel assembled prominent members of the technology community to discuss innovative ideas. The group came up with a list that included: “mobile applications, data harmonization, geo-location, smart maps, social media, and drones.” Mr. VanRoekel noted that “most of these things were really bad ideas.” Technology was not going to be the solution – Liberia, the country in which the U.S. spearheaded response efforts, lacked cell service in 70-80% of its landmass. A successful solution would have to be found on the ground in Liberia.

Upon arriving in Liberia, Mr. VanRoekel understood that he and his team would need to write a new playbook in order to best respond to the epidemic. Mr. VanRoekel laid out the steps to succeed in doing this: “always assume your initial assumptions were wrong; break the rules, don’t break the laws; stand on the shoulders of what you know works.” This process led to four pillars of a new playbook.

Mr. VanRoekel and his team began by determining how data flowed on the ground. Texting emerged as the main transmitter and allowed for information to be disseminated in a timely fashion. Second, Mr. VanRoekel worked on communications and outreach to help citizens understand the threat of Ebola. He made a “cheeky Facebook joke… we posted on walls” – he and his team hung information posters around Liberia. A third pillar the team worked on was rapid diagnostics. The successful flow of data helped them to determine where cases of Ebola were likely to pop up and allowed for proper preparation and rapid diagnostics. The last pillar of the playbook involved revamping the personal protective equipment worn by the doctors, nurses, and technicians on the ground. Mr. VanRoekel assembled experts from multiple industries to create new suits that were easier to use and allowed patients to see doctors smile.

Mr. VanRoekel stressed that, “bottom line: West Africans solved this crisis.” Americans, international organizations, and other countries helped where they could. He described the future of epidemic response as lying within bio-surveillance and artificial intelligence. Mr. VanRoekel concluded by saying that there was “no more rewarding time in my life” than working on the crisis.