Does the WHO’s response to the Zika outbreak suggest it has learned from the Ebola pandemic?

In March 2014, Ebola epidemic struck West Africa, spilled over into the United States and Europe and led to more than 27,000 infections and more than 11,000 deaths. Five months later on 8 Augusts, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared West African Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The world Health Organization was criticized widely for the delays and mismanagement in its response to the Ebola crisis.

In 2016, two years later, there was a new public health crisis that emerged in the South American continent, the Zika virus. In contrast, the WHO declared Zika as PHEIC on 1 February 2016 much earlier than they did during the Ebola crisis, despite significantly fewer deaths. More precisely, the third Zika related death in Brazil was recorded ten days after the PHEIC announcement.

According to the WHO, four criteria must be met for a PHEIC to be declared. The outbreak must have a serious public heath impact; must be unexpected, must have the potential to spread and must have the potential that leads to travel and trade restrictions to and from the infected countries. The Zika and Ebola cases met all the above four criteria and hence were supposed to have same priorities under WHO.

According to experts, Ebola failure come because of the challenges that the WHO faced during the outbreak in West Africa such as:

  • By the time Ebola outbreak began in March of 2014, the relationship between Geneva and the African office had broken down.
  • The WHO was also dealing with three Grade 3 emergencies in Syria, Central African Republic, and South Sudan
  • The WHO’s African Health Office (AFHO) was comparatively very ineffective in reporting Ebola. The AFHOs failures were some of the improvements made by the Pan-American Health Office (PAHO) which had the expertise and showed professionalism needed that led to the success of Zika- virus outbreak response in the South Americas.

World Health Organization’s (WHO) quick response to the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, is indicative of lessons learned from Ebola crisis in West Africa, in the wake of criticism.

Patterson argues that WHO officials blamed the slow Ebola response on budget cuts that did hit the programs on infectious disease control and poor communication between Ebola –affected countries and the WHO headquarters. This was improved by the WHO on how it responded to the Zika virus outbreak on the South American continent and also how it approached the funding.

Despite the ongoing budget pressure, at the beginning of the Zika outbreak in 2016, the need for a greater scientific knowledge on Zika virus drove its PHEIC announcement. And surely the WHO, after being accused of dragging its feet with Ebola, wanted to act quickly with the Zika virus.

WHO also care about its reputations as an organization with States, and by moving swiftly on Zika, the agency was trying to rebuild the reputation of efficiency and decisiveness that it lost during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Learning from Ebola, the WHO learned how to convey the Zika virus outbreak message to became a global political priority that easily resonated with an audience of policy makers and the citizens. As pointed by Patterson in Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, the  Zika outbreak was conveyed in a way that easily gained the global attention by stressing that the vulnerable and the innocent (pregnant women and newborns) were the victims, this easily swayed the policymakers into giving the outbreak a priority.  Unlike the Ebola outbreak, which had a high mortality rate and caused intense suffering, was conveyed to affect a broad swath of society, making it harder to frame the need for action to a particular group and hence did not work out very well with the global political priority.

Lastly, according to time magazine, WHO required about 1 billion dollars to fight Ebola in West Africa, but less than one-fifth of the budget was funded. The longer WHO delayed to declare Ebola PHEIC led to the virus spreading a lot more, leading to more deaths and became complex in management is a mistake WHO did not want to repeat. The agency had to use the minimum budget available while lobbying for funding and also had to contain the Zika virus faster than Ebola to avoid the criticism of the Ebola slow response two years ago.

There could be other factors involve in Zika success like the fact that Brazil was hosting the soccer world cup, and it was easy to convince donors of the financial damages Zika outbreak could pose during that period pointing out the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak and its economic burden in the West African countries in 2014. This also led to the WHO, US congress, the Brazilian government and other donors working together to making sure Ebola mistakes are not repeated in the South American continent.



The plight, human rights, and African Justice; trapped in transit

The term Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been the subject of continuous debate among scholars, States and International Organizations (AU, UN, NATO…,) and the civil society all over the world. This discussion is not new; it can be pointed back from the 19th Century’s humanitarian intervention of the European Powers in the Ottoman Empire to the current intervention in global human rights crisis.

Ainley argues that the R2P process and the International Criminal Court (ICC) are the most important innovations in human rights protection, developed alongside each other to confront atrocity crimes through prevention, protection, and procession and the two are supposed to work in tandem to temper international politics and to end impunity.

The seeming failure of these institutions to adequately respond and tackle the humanitarian crisis has led to the formulation of the concept that the states have a responsibility to protect fundamental human rights of their people, and that the international community has the responsibility to step in when the states fail to do so.

R2P brings a new label that the international community, collectively or through the action of individual states, may forcibly intervene within the sovereign spheres of other countries, which are unwilling or unable to stop humanitarian catastrophes involving crimes against humanity, including and not limited to; starvation and humanity mass murder.

As an international Community, African Union (AU) established a set of norms and principles that mirror the tenets of R2P (as agreed by the outcome document of the 2005 World Summit). These AU standards and policies, coupled with the AU’s peace and security architecture, makes it proactive in the management of crisis and conflict prevention on the continent. However, is it effective?

A collaborative venture between the AU (at the continental level) and the UN and ICC (at the global scale) has the best options for deepening R2P norms.

The world is experiencing a unique moment of opportunity in the relation between the UN, ICC, and the AU.

The relationship manifests by AU’s responses to current security challenges in Darfur, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia and the  ICC’s application for the issuance of the arrest warrant for President Al-Bashir of Sudan. The call for withdrawal by the AU member states from ICC does not reflect a clear commitment to the R2P by the AU member states.

The AU’s attempt to solve the Africa’s crisis will continue to lag behind due to lack of political will and weakening of its principles and norms by its member states.

The proposal by African leaders to have a “collective withdrawal” from the Rome Statute, the foundational treaty of member states to the International ICC, is a source of real concern.

The objections raised by the leaders about ICC are of significant interest. The issues includes;

  1. The ICC management and the Courts independence
  2. The ICC has not been even-handed in its justice application
  3. Powerful member states which fund the ICC, such as the US, China, and Russia, cannot face trial in the court.
  4. The significant players on the international scene are not signatories to the ICC is problematic and leaves a large proportion of the world population uncovered by the court’s remit.

Even with the above ICC shortcomings, it is an indisputable fact that Africa disproportionately bear the most crimes perpetrated by their leaders, including mass murder and displacements and ICC has played a crucial role in offering justice to victims. What the institution needs are internal reforms to make it more efficient and effective.

The proposed African Court of Justice is still a long way off, and it is by no means clear either that it will be useful in its application of justice or that there is enough funding available from the AU to sustain an institution with such a massive mandate.

Withdrawing from the ICC with no credible mechanism for justice for mass crimes in place would be an error of colossal proportions. It is much better for the African member states to stay in the ICC and advocate for internal reforms rather than bolting and leaving millions of Africans unprotected by an international court which can step in when the national institutions fail.