Flashback: The WHO was useless during Ebola, too

Because reactions to the President of the United States are so polarised along culture war lines, the reaction to his announcement the day before yesterday that he would seek to suspend US funding of the world health organisation has broadly been about exactly what you might expect.

“Global Fury”, reports the Irish Times:

“Although the WHO has attracted criticism from some quarters about its response to the crisis, and accusations that it is too heavily influenced by China, Mr Trump’s decision to stop funding the pre-eminent global health organisation in the middle of a pandemic was greeted with astonishment across the globe. Bill Gates, a major donor to the WHO, said the move was “as dangerous as it sounds”.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said there was “no reason justifying this at a moment” when the US’s efforts were needed more than ever to help contain the pandemic.”

But interestingly, even those who you might usually expect to be the most ferocious critics of Trump and defenders of global institutions have had to put their hands up and acknowledge the problems with the WHO. Here’s the Guardian, probably the most left-wing broadsheet on these islands:

The WHO has handled the coronavirus’s emergence more nimbly than it did Ebola, reflecting the reforms made in the wake of that sluggish and inept response. But there is concern about the praise it has lavished on China and its leadership despite the anxieties over human rights, the length of time it took China to confirm human-to-human transmission and the cover-up of the scale and seriousness of the outbreak in Wuhan by authorities, which allowed Covid-19’s spread within China and abroad.

The organisation has treated Taiwan appallingly, thanks to its concern for relations with Beijing. China regards the self-ruled island as a renegade province and has blocked its membership of the body. The leadership cannot change that. But Taipei has accused the WHO of failing to pass on its early warning that the virus might be transmitted between humans. It has dodged questions on Taiwan, and Dr Tedros launched a bizarre attack on the democracy, saying he had received racist slurs from Taiwan and that “the foreign ministry didn’t disassociate” itself from them. (Taiwan says the charge is baseless.)”

The first line in that, about Ebola, is important. Ebola, before Coronavirus, was the biggest health crisis the world had faced in years. Although it didn’t really reach western shores, except in one or two cases, it required truly global health leadership to fight the outbreak – exactly the kind of thing for which the WHO, in theory, exists. How did the WHO perform back then? Well.

Here’s Reuters, from November 2015:

“The World Health Organization’s failure to sound the alarm until months into West Africa’s Ebola outbreak was an “egregious failure” which added to the enormous suffering and death toll, global health experts said on Monday….

….“The most egregious failure was by WHO in the delay in sounding the alarm,” said Ashish K. Jha, HGHI’s director and a leading member of the panel. “People at WHO were aware that there was an Ebola outbreak that was getting out of control by spring, and yet it took until August to declare a public health emergency.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the report had “sobering lessons” which must be learned and “translated into concrete action if we are to avert another crisis”.”

Well, gee, do we think those lessons were learned? And doesn’t that all sound very familiar?

Here’s Time Magazine, from April of 2015:

“Top leaders at the World Health Organization (WHO) have admitted to being “ill prepared” to handle the Ebola outbreak and released a comprehensive list of agency failings as well as suggested reforms they and global policymakers must realize moving forward.

“We can mount a highly effective response to small and medium-sized outbreaks, but when faced with an emergency of this scale, our current systems — national and international — simply have not coped,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, Deputy Director-General Anarfi Asamoa-Baah and the organization’s regional directors in a joint statement dated April 16.

The statement listed eight lessons WHO learned from the crisis, including “communicating more clearly what is needed.”

The statement also articulated nine remedies WHO must undergo to better handle large outbreaks in the future — such as intensifying “our advocacy with national authorities to keep outbreak prevention and management at the top of national and global agendas,” as well as establishing a “Global Health Emergency Workforce” and a contingency fund.”

How many of those eight lessons were learned, we might wonder, because the one they’ve highlighted there about “communicating more clearly” clearly has not been learned.

The simple fact is that the WHO has been far more interested in playing absurd political games than it has been in promoting global health in recent years. Here’s an astonishing example, from 2017, via the BBC:

“The World Health Organization has revoked the appointment of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador following a widespread outcry.

“I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns,” WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

He had previously praised Zimbabwe for its commitment to public health.

But critics pointed out that Zimbabwe’s healthcare system had collapsed in recent years.”

Generally speaking, it should be a cause for alarm when the head of the World Health Organisation is pointing to Zimbabwe (life expectancy: 60) as an example of commitment to public health.

The simple fact is that the World Health Organisation has had to face two global health crises in the past decade. It has mucked up both of them.

At some point, somebody had to do something. There’s literally no point pouring billions of dollars, euros, or yen into an organisation this incompetent.

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