Sara Gorman (@saragorm) discusses recent criticism of WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and whether the focus should be on failures in preparation rather than response.
A January 6 article in the New York Times suggested that WHO Director-General Margaret Chan’s response to the Ebola crisis was woefully inadequate. The article notes that it took 1,000 Ebola deaths in Africa and the spread of the disease to Nigeria for the Chan to proclaim a global emergency. Citing criticisms of Chan’s response to the SARS epidemic as a public health administrator in Hong Kong, the article accuses the current WHO head of conceding too heavily to local governments. The article claims that she relied too heavily on African regional offices to manage the response when her agency should have stepped in more aggressively earlier. But the history of public responses to infectious disease announcements, as well as tragically underfunded global disease surveillance systems, suggest that, while Chan may not have done everything she could, the story is much more complex than it seems.
Sounding the alarm bell on an infectious disease threat and taking extreme measures such as quarantine and travel bans is not without risk. American history is littered with examples of harmful infectious disease panic. More often than not, American responses to infectious disease threats tend to tap into embedded racial tensions. We only need to look at vicious attacks on African boys at a Bronx, NY school in October, to the sounds of the nickname “Ebola,” to understand that these dynamics are still very much at play. Chan herself certainly knows the harms of acting perhaps too quickly in response to what seems like a global infectious disease crisis. In 2009, Chan was harshly criticized for supposedly “overreacting” to the H1N1 threat.