WHO perfects conference calls, bungles epidemic response

Ebola Virus
by Wayne Stender
Posted 9/21/15, 05:00 pm

The World Health Organization (WHO) bungled the response to last year’s Ebola outbreak, according to a new Associated Press report that identifies the key issue as a “death by conference call.”

The WHO recognized the outbreak in March, 2014. As the organization scrambled to organize, Christian missionaries were already working in the field with the virus’ victims. Time Magazine recognized the powerful work of Christian healthcare workers, calling them “the Ebola fighters” in its “Person of the Year” publication. The AP investigation shows why the WHO didn’t receive that honor.

In July 2014, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told senior staff that, “Transportation, PPE (personal protective equipment) and other equipment must be provided” to keep the virus from spreading beyond the borders of Freetown, Sierra Leone. In the following months, staffers reported still wearing ill-fitting gloves and using stray plastic packaging in place of heavy-duty footwear as the organization failed to mobilize. 

The trail of the WHO’s inept reaction leads to Jacob Mufunda, a WHO representative in Sierra Leone tasked with supporting poor nations’ health systems and calling on local leaders to take action. Mufunda’s failure was specifically felt in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s largest city.

Missionary organizations offered disinfecting agents, but the WHO declined. They chose to use cleansing agents from government supplies instead, learning later they had been tampered with. WHO workers found broken seals on drums of disinfectant. Important tags were missing from many drums, and expiration dates were unreadable. WHO disorganization haunted staff, leading to reports of some workers abandoning their posts.

Conference call recordings and email communication highlight endless talks between Mafunda and aid organizations. Hour long meetings stretched into three- to five-hour diatribes by Mafunda. Metabiota Inc, a U.S. research company, detailed a 45 minute prate by Mafunda on the color of body bags, with special attention paid to the significance of black body bags, versus blue or white. 

With WHO supplies nonexistent, workers spent their own money on protective gear. They even pooled resources to collect thousands of dollars needed to fix a generator at a local hospital after Mufunda’s office ignored requests for help.

WHO officials have since reassigned Mufunda to the office in Mozambique, shining light on a festering organizational problem. A top official told AP swapping posts was common in emergencies. Such personnel changes, along with other problems, led some organizations working with the WHO to create strategic plans to address the Ebola outbreak without involving the international agency. 

Experts note nearly every response to a major emergency is flawed, but the WHO’s level of dysfunction was exceptional. The WHO did not censure any employees after its own internal investigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Wayne Stender

Wayne is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD contributor.

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