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Opinion: ‘Outbreak culture’ can derail effective responses to deadly epidemics

Instead of responding to disease outbreaks, countries and organizations need to adopt the military's approach to perpetual readiness.
Railway passengers wear protective face masks in Hong Kong in 2003. Source: Christian Keenan/Getty Images

An outbreak of an infectious disease creates a crucible in which forces are melded in an intense, high-stakes, pressure-filled environment. The situation is volatile, oftentimes unclear and rapidly evolving, and the pathogen may be life-threatening. The scenario is a test of humanity and our response to unpredictability. We often fail.

In 2015, as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa had begun to slow down, we conducted an anonymous survey of more than 200 local and foreign Ebola responders about their experiences during the height of the epidemic. Nearly all of those surveyed mentioned that political and interpersonal challenges at times slowed their responses. Many said they feared the politics more than the virus. More than a quarter reported either witnessing, hearing about, or falling victim to illegal or unethical tactics while responding to the outbreak.

Among the tactics they reported: money and other forms

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