It was trialled and failed in 2015
The failings of WHO’s Covid-19 policies are extensive, especially in the world’s poor countries. Today, I spoke to ex-Médecins-Sans-Frontières (MSF) Deputy Head for the Emergency Unit in Spain, Llanos Ortíz Montero, who laid out in grim detail just how badly these countries have been affected.
Ortíz Montero has worked for decades in emergency responses in countries from Mozambique and South Sudan to Haiti and the Philippines. Her interview adds to the growing evidence for the catastrophic and unprecedented policy shift which took place in the WHO’s pandemic response policy in February 2020. “The impression you get,” says Ortíz Montero, is that these policies were “a diversion away from the Alma Ata declaration.”
Having been a leading figure in MSF’s response to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone in 2014-15, Ortíz Montero’s evidence should be taken seriously. For it was during the Ebola crisis that a lockdown of this kind was trialled — a lockdown for uninfected people which MSF criticised severely at the time, arguing that “a lockdown would force people underground, destroy trust between doctors and the public and ultimately help spread the disease”.
During the Ebola crisis of 2014-5, brief lockdowns were introduced in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Subsequent academic studies pointed out that they had been widely criticised as being ineffective and counter-productive. With an airborne disease such as Covid-19, the contraindications for lockdowns in poor countries are even higher than for Ebola; for, as Ortíz Montero points out in her interview, “Living conditions in many countries imply many families living in one house. And again, that’s facilitating transmission. And in fact there are several studies through the years which highlight side-effects of locking up healthy, or not infected people”.
Thus we learnt that leading public health experts working in low income countries had warned against lockdowns in poor countries just a few years before, and that subsequent research had confirmed that the policies had had a negative impact. WHO officials worked closely on Ebola, and must have known about this research, so why did they suddenly change tack for Covid? It’s hardly surprising that Ortíz Montero describes her shock when on February 24th 2020 the WHO issued a “one-size-fits-all” model to deal with the Covid-19 pathogen.
It would appear that no lessons were learnt from the Ebola epidemic by WHO. However, that’s not the impression one gets on the WHO Covid-19 pages, which offers Liberia as a case study response for Covid and describes the lessons learnt from Ebola. This 7-page document says very little about lockdowns at all; other than mentioning lockdown fatigue here and there in 2020, the fact that one of the “lessons learnt” from Ebola was the inappropriateness of lockdowns in poorer countries goes unmentioned.
In WHO’s Geneva headquarters, it appears, the desire to rewrite history gathers pace. Meanwhile, brave figures such as Ortíz Montero show how troubled we should all be at the catastrophic policy decisions which have led to what many policymakers describe as the reversal of decades of gains in the Global South.
Toby Green is the author of The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality (Hurst).