Ebola, COVID and the WHO

David and Helen talk this week with Amy Maxmen, senior reporter at Nature.  Amy has covered the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa and now COVID-19 in the US. Does she see comparisons between the two? What explains the failures of the US response? Can the WHO still make a difference? Plus we explore the implications of the growing politicisation of science. When did data become so divisive?


Talking Points:


There are significant parallels between what is happening now and epidemics such as ebola.

  • Outbreaks turn slight cracks into gaping holes: they reveal political and systemic issues.


Politics made the ebola outbreak in DRC worse.

  • Conspiracy theories emerged that ebola was being used to suppress the political opposition.
  • Ultimately Tedros and other experts were able to convince both politicians and local leaders to focus on the public health response instead of the politics.
  • The parallels to the US now are clear, but could any figure get past the politics? 


For Amy, the lack of tests and the failure to contact trace and quarantine made it clear that the U.S. response would be much worse than she had feared.

  • The U.S. hasn’t faced a pandemic in a long time and there was no sense of the kind of coordination that would be required. 
  • Different states are still doing different things.


There’s a lot to be said for supply chain management right now.

  • In an ideal world, we would get a vaccine sooner rather than later. But we don’t know.
  • Funding for vaccines is great, but the basic public health response still needs to be funded.


The WHO is now getting politicized, but they still have the most experience at coordinating things like this at a global level.

  • A lot of people misunderstand what the WHO can and can’t do. It’s pretty small in terms of both budget and power.
  • The WHO can’t enforce things; it works through diplomacy and relationships. But there is still a lot of power in that.


If you need people to stay home; you need to be sure that you can support them.

  • Supporting people alleviates public pressure to prematurely lift the lockdown and it ensures that people can actually survive.


Mentioned in this Episode: 


Further Learning:


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking


 

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