Office politics were largely responsible for the WHO's slow Ebola outbreak response, a panel says
An advisory panel selected to assess the response of the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Ebola outbreak blamed the agency’s politics and rigid culture for the poor response to the epidemic. The outbreak has infected more than 27,500 people and killed more than 11,200 in West Africa.
In a report published Tuesday, the panel blamed the organization as a whole for being late in activating emergency procedures, despite early warnings from other groups like Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. The panel concluded that the agency made noise about the outbreak with little action and poor preparation: “Although WHO drew attention to the ‘unprecedented outbreak’ at a press conference in April 2014, this was not followed by international mobilization and a consistent communication strategy,” the authors write.
The panel argues that the culture at the WHO greatly prohibited action, writing:
“WHO does not have a culture of rapid decision-making and tends to adopt a reactive, rather than a proactive, approach to emergencies. In the early stages of the Ebola crisis, messages were sent by experienced staff at headquarters and the Regional Office for Africa, including after deployments in the field, about the seriousness of the crisis. Either these did not reach senior leaders or senior leaders did not recognize their significance. WHO does not have an organizational culture that supports open and critical dialogue between senior leaders and staff or that permits risk-taking or critical approaches to decision-making. There seems to have been a hope that the crisis could be managed by good diplomacy rather than by scaling up emergency action.”
The panel says that a number of factors were responsible for the delay in declaring the outbreak a pubic health emergency of international concern, including a late understanding of the gravity of the situation, denial among country authorities, culture problems within the WHO and a failure of the international community as a whole to take notice.
The report suggests instituting a variety of reforms and priorities, including focusing on fast-tracking vaccines and drugs and calling upon WHO member states and partners to immediately contribute $100 million in voluntary contributions for an emergency fund.
Response to the report has been mixed. As the Associated Press reports, some members of the public health community involved were disappointed that individuals were not called out by name and that the agency was already focusing on lessons learned, when the outbreak is still ongoing.