Via The New York Times: Effort on Ebola Hurt W.H.O. Chief. Excerpt:
Now, Ebola is battering three fragile countries in Africa and with it, the W.H.O.’s standing — in large part, Dr. Chan’s critics say, because she let governments around the world steer the agency to fit their own needs, instead of firmly taking the helm as the world’s doctor in chief.
Diplomacy is an inevitable, even necessary, part of running the world’s main health organization, vital to getting fractious countries to cooperate for the sake of global health, her critics acknowledge.
But Dr. Chan, they say, has been too willing to accommodate the wishes of governments, at times reluctant to call them to task and at other times too ready to bow to the demands of donors — even when it puts the world’s health at risk.
Not until August, after 1,000 Africans had died and Ebola had spread to Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, did Dr. Chan declare the outbreak a global emergency.
“The W.H.O. should have pulled out all the stops and said this is an emergency” much earlier, said Dr. Peter Piot, who discovered the Ebola virus 40 years ago.
Dr. Chan’s performance during a major health crisis has been attacked before. She was a public health administrator in Hong Kong when SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, emerged from China and rapidly spread across the world in 2003. A year later, the Hong Kong legislature censured her for not pressing the Chinese government hard enough on the outbreak.
SARS was pivotal for the W.H.O. as well, but for the opposite reason. The agency’s director general at the time, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, took an unusually aggressive stance, hectoring Beijing to share more information about the disease. When it did not, Dr. Brundtland issued a global alert anyway, overriding the concerns of affected governments.
But after taking over the W.H.O., Dr. Chan took a far more cautious approach on Ebola, leaving it to her African regional office to work with local government officials who were nervous about ringing the alarm.
By the time Dr. Chan declared the Ebola outbreak an emergency, hundreds more people had died than during the entire SARS epidemic. Now, the death toll for Ebola has exceeded 8,000.
Dr. Chan defended her record on Ebola, saying that she had followed protocol by leaving it to the Africa office to respond in the early months of the virus. She acknowledged that getting a grip on the W.H.O.’s regional offices, which are effectively controlled by local governments, was the most intractable political issue in the organization and that, in hindsight, she wished she had acted a little earlier to “mount a much stronger, more aggressive response.”
Sounding the alarm can come with a price, as Dr. Chan had learned. When swine flu broke out in 2009, she was criticized for overreacting and declaring it a pandemic. While an independent review later found that she was right to do so, some critics and supporters now wonder if the experience made her gun-shy in responding to Ebola. She says it did not.
“We are not forgiven if politicians perceive we might have gotten it wrong,” said a former W.H.O. official.
Under Dr. Chan’s leadership, the W.H.O. has also been accused of deferring to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad when polio made a comeback in that country in late 2013. Nor did the agency say anything publicly about Saudi Arabia’s failure to detail the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome last year.
At the end of May, as Ebola deaths neared 200, Dr. Chan barely touched on the outbreak in her speech to the annual conclave of the W.H.O.’s 194 member states in Geneva. Instead, she addressed a host of issues dear to various governments, from cancer to sugar consumption.