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Ebola - Liberia - Sierra Leone

African countries react to report on WHO bungling Ebola response

Mourners gather at the graveside of a victim of the Ebola virus in Suakoko, Liberia
Mourners gather at the graveside of a victim of the Ebola virus in Suakoko, Liberia Reuters/James Giahyue

A new report outlining the incompetency of the World Heath Organization in handling the deadly Ebola epidemic is too little, too late, according to Sierra Leonean and Liberian officials.

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“They played politics with the lives of West Africans   the lives of the sub-region, especially the Mano River Basin. That wasn’t fair,” says Sekou Kanneh, lawmaker for Montserrado County, one of the areas hardest hit by the deadly virus in Liberia.

He says that WHO was not proactive when Ebola first struck Liberia and the rest of the region, saying that by the time it hit the capital, and his county, it was obvious an epidemic was underway.

“There were no more denials by June, July,” Kanneh told RFI via telephone, referring to WHO’s delayed response in declaring an epidemic.

One of the key points made by the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel was that decisions were influenced by politics. The WHO did not declare Ebola a global emergency until 8 August, too late for the 1,000 who had already died. Kanneh believes the death toll at this point during the crisis was actually higher.

“This is about human life. This is about people. When there’s an emergency, you don’t politicise that. You do all you can to solve the situation, and then later on politics can play,” he adds.

Other criticisms from the report include WHO not including communities early on in dealing with the disease, says J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

“They [the panel] feel that the engagement was very clumsy, very late. This was quite fundamental to the ability to win the trust and confidence of communities as these terrible outbreaks were unfolding,” says Morrison.

The panel also found the overall communications strategy of the world health body was lacking. Morrison agrees with the panel’s assessment and describes their voice as “weak”.

“They should have been in the leadership role in sounding the alarm, communicating what was at stake in a clear and effective way,” he says. “It was a very confused and chaotic set of messages,” he adds.

The UN body transmitted mixed messages in Sierra Leone, says government spokesman Abdulahi Bayraytay, who explains the evolution of WHO’s presence in the country.

“They provided technical and professional guidance for the government in handling the epidemic itself, particularly at a time when Ebola itself was new to us in Sierra Leone,” says Bayraytay.

But he says WHO changed their tune when government health representatives took action during the outbreak.

“When we locked down the entire Kailahun district in the eastern part of the country, where we first recorded the first case index, WHO wasn’t too pleased because to them it was like we were creating alarm,” he says.

Bayraytay says that not only the WHO is to blame, but the international community, who did not offer the aid needed when Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma asked for help.

“Had this epidemic been in any other part of the industrialised world, the response would have been different,” says Bayraytay.

The report also outlines how WHO member states failed to help monetarily including major donors who did not push the health body to replenish funds to the weakened emergency response section.

The WHO issued a statement this week, calling the rebuilding of national health systems in West Africa a “critical priority”.

Sierra Leone is not waiting for the international community, says Bayraytay. Some 30 specialist doctors have been trained in viral haemorrhagic fevers, just part of the country’s efforts to make their post-Ebola health system more resilient.

“Additionally, for the first time in our country’s history, we have used the facilities for the centres for disease control in the US, Canada, South Africa and China to train 20 bio-medics to respond to Ebola,” he says.

The panel issued a number of recommendations to revamp the beleaguered organisation, including the creation of an emergency health response unit that will be discussed at the UN Secretary General’s Ebola Recovery Conference on 9-10 July.

The flaws in the WHO bureaucracy could impede any swift revamp of the organisation in order to avoid a weak response in the future, says health expert Morrison. One hope, he says, is the high-level political panel chaired by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and other notables.

He says that they may have the clout to speak to the UN Security Council and high-level political leaders about how to execute some of these reforms, but he does not believe the WHO or its executive board is capable at this point.

“It’s going to have to happen at a higher level, and it’s still not completely clear where the political will is, how that political will is going to be sparked and captured to move this forward,” says Morrison.

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