Congressional Panel Looks to Learn from Ebola

April 14, 2016

In an election year, it can start to seem like every policy issue qualifies as contentious. Perhaps that’s why the constructive, bipartisan discussion featured in last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing on the West Africa Ebola epidemic was so refreshing.

Amanda Glassman, CGD’s director of global health policy, was one of four expert witnesses who spoke to the response and recovery in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea as well as the broader US approach to global health security. If the hearing dialogue was any indication, there’s real cause for hope that the lessons learned in fighting Ebola may be used to inform and improve US action when—not if—another disease outbreak strikes.

Here’s a bit of what we heard.

Recovery: There was widespread acknowledgement that although the World Health Organization announced the end of the West Africa Ebola outbreak as an international health emergency, there is more work to be done to help the afflicted countries rebuild and address disease flare-ups. Amanda offered practical recommendations for recovery focusing on the needs of households, health systems, and firms. She noted the benefits of cash transfers to help families in Ebola-affected communities, stressed the importance of measuring the performance of health systems (outcomes!), and urged increased support for improving investment climates and reducing infrastructure deficits.

Global Health Security: Another area of consensus was that a strong US approach to safeguard global health security is critical. Amanda’s proposal to move beyond disease-specific earmarks to serve long-term US global health interests was echoed by Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) also cited a recent article by Ebola czar Ron Klain that called for coordinated leadership to overcome bureaucratic divisions and marshal resources. These efforts, he says, would help ensure the United States is truly prepared to take on the next global health threat. (Notably, this sounds a lot like the role of a global health coordinator, a new position Amanda proposed in her brief for The White House and the World.)

Transparency: Decidedly less flashy, Amanda’s final plea—for greater transparency in the Ebola response—still mustered plenty of support. To date, she explained, data on Ebola spending and recovery progress has been spread across multiple platforms and offers an incomplete picture. A complicated, multi-agency, emergency response such as the one mobilized to tackle the Ebola epidemic requires greater vigilance to understand how funding has been spent and what we are getting for our dollars. And it is in precisely these situations that information is so vital. We were also excited to hear members underscore their interest in the outcomes of recovery activities, which while considerably harder to measure than inputs, are necessary to discern if we want truly informed decision making.

Let’s hope the bipartisan agreement we saw on display at the hearing translates into meaningful steps to address these important issues. And given the growing threat of the Zika virus, let’s also hope lawmakers advance a more sustainable approach to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from infectious disease outbreaks sooner rather than later.

You can watch the hearing in full here and check out Amanda’s submitted testimony.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.