Ebola to COVID 19: Has Geopolitics prevailed over Professionalism in WHO
World Health Organization (WHO) is perceived as one of the most professional bodies of the United Nations. However, the role of WHO has come under question in handling outbreak two deadly diseases – Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) and novel Coronavirus (COVID19) but this is probably the first time the UN health body is stuck between geopolitics of two superpowers - the US and China.
This is the second recent health crisis that has put a question mark on the professionalism of the WHO. The US President (POTUS) Donald Trump on Thursday accused the UN health body of ‘siding with China’ on the outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID 19) in Wuhan that has now spiraled into a global health crisis for the human race. The narrative that was so far circulating on social media has now made an entry in the official discourse in the USA with Congressman Michael McCaul making direct allegations against WHO Chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for conniving with China.
Dr. Tedros, who hails from Ethiopia, took over the reins of WHO on 1 July 2017 for a period of five years. He is the first Director-General of the WHO without a medical degree. Before his appointment, WHO had rejected three recommendations of health experts to declare an international health emergency on Ebola despite the death of 11,323 patients and 28,466 confirmed infections between 2013-16 in West Africa during its biggest-ever outbreak. Finally, the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was declared an international health emergency on 18 July 2019 after a recent outbreak in Congo and some neighboring countries. As the declaration of an international health emergency for an outbreak provides better coordination and funding to control the disease, the health experts believe that a professional and timely response to the Ebola outbreak would have enhanced the experience of the world community in handling COVID 19. This is because both the diseases have several similarities including the hygienic protocols required to control the spread of the infection.
Ebola Outbreak: No lesson learned by Europe and America
Like COVID 19, Ebola is also a highly contagious disease. It is transmitted among humans from wild animals such as fruit bats, porcupines, and non-human primates through their excretions and body fluids. Human to human transmission is also very fast as any person coming in direct contact with the body fluids of the infected persons is infected with the diseases. Furthermore, the average mortality rate of Ebola is 50 percent with a range from 25 to 80 percent which is less at 3 percent in the case of COVID 19.
The disease was first known in 1976 and by 2013 about 24 major outbreaks were reported in different countries of Sub Saharan Africa. However, the biggest outbreak was between 2013-16 that killed 11,323 Africans. The three countries that witnessed maximum deaths between 2014-16 are Sierra Leone (3,956 deaths), Liberia (4809 deaths) and Guinea (2543 deaths). However, WHO rejected three attempts of health experts for declaration of an international health emergency. Those recommendations were rejected on the ground that it would promote the vested interests seeking more funds and cause adverse effects on the economy of the affected countries due to possible lockdowns.
Commenting on the declaration of international health emergency on Ebola in 2019, Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders said, “The reality check is that a year into the pandemic, it is still not under control, and we are not where we should be.” She further emphasized, “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results,”.
Like COVID 19, Ebola also reduces the immunity of the body. But its more dangerous, as it is transmitted through blood and other body fluids. Its gestation period is up to 21 days that means the infected person may not show the symptoms of the disease during this period but can spread the virus to others. Besides, the Ebola virus is transmitted from pregnant women to her fetus, mother's milk and also through semen. The protective health gear that doctors and nurses are seen wearing today for COVID 19, is also required to protect health workers from Ebola patients. Besides, the regular washing of hands with soap and social distancing is also important in both cases. As there is no specific medicine for Ebola, the doctors do only the symptomatic treatments of the patient.
The European and American countries including the USA were never bothered with such a huge number of deaths in African countries. This was probably because the experts in the WHO had ruled out the possibility of spreading diseases beyond the African continent. However, the possibility of a regional epidemic was always recognized. Like COVID 19, the screening of all the social contacts of Ebola positive patient is mandatory to control the infection. The suspects are quarantined for a minimum of 21 days but a patient is kept in isolation for 42 days after recovery from the disease for complete cleaning of the virus from the body.
Though the outbreak of Ebola has been almost controlled, there are still chances of more outbreaks. As the infection reached the US in 2014, researches for vaccines and medicines were started. However, that little effort has now been stopped and scientists engaged in the Ebola project have been asked to work on COVID 19.
The outbreak of COVID 19 in Wuhan: Was professionalism compromised?
The allegations of the USA against WHO chief are very serious. However, Dr. Tedros seems to be under some kind of pressure in his response against novel coronavirus. The kind of responsibility and alertness he had shown in declaring international health emergency for a recent outbreak of Ebola in Congo was not seen in the case of COVID 19.
Though the mysterious virus was reported in Wuhan in November 2019 and the city was completely locked down on January 23, WHO declared the international health emergency on January 30. The complete lockdown of a city due to a viral disease was unprecedented in recent years but the response of WHO was too late. Besides, the COVID 19 soon spread in neighboring countries such as Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Malaysia, and India, etc. The flights and ships were being stopped from infested cities but the WHO waited till March 12 to declare it a pandemic until the COVID 19 became epidemic in almost entire Europe and North America.
Geopolitics in WHO: Who pressurized whom?
If the top health agency was under pressure, the million-dollar question is - who was pressuring whom? The question will not be so easy to answer. This is because the sarcastic comments of the US and European leaders against China in the initial days of the COVID 19 outbreak indicate that up to some extent the decision-makers in these countries were happy.
Until the COVID 19 became a health crisis in Europe and the Americas, the devastation of the Chinese economy was seen with much hope and opportunity in the US and Europe. Now the situation is going to change 360 degrees. China seems to be recovering while Europe and the US are slated to face Italy like devastation. The UN health body is facing a testing time to deal with health-related issues that are considered completely scientific and highly objective. This is the biggest crisis of our time.
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