As the first cases of Ebola have reached the United States, concern about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the response of the US government have dominated the national news. In the midst of the political and media frenzy surrounding this world health crisis, NYU Law hosted Gian Luca Burci, legal counsel of the World Health Organization and current visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, for a dialogue about Ebola and the challenges facing the WHO. In a conversation with José Alvarez, Herbert and Rose Rubin Professor of International Law, Burci spoked about the challenges of initial responses to the Ebola outbreak, as well as the role of governments, the WHO, and other international organizations going forward.

Burci emphasized the differences between the WHO and organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, which provide on-the-ground medical care. The WHO focuses more on policy, creating guidelines and roadmaps for responses to health crises as well as providing public health advice to governments and other actors. “We are a normative organization. We produce public health policy,” Burci said. “We usually don't play the role of fire brigade—we see ourselves as the health ministry of the world.”

The intensity of this particular outbreak, Burci said, is in part due to its location. Previous outbreaks had occurred in small villages with very low mobility, making containment much simpler. By contrast, this outbreak reached three major cities in three separate countries—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—with significantly greater population density and mobility.

One of the WHO’s first recommendations was to keep the borders open to these affected areas, allowing access by medical workers—such as those from Doctors Without Borders. In the panicked response to the Ebola crisis, however, this recommendation was not universally followed. Senegal closed its borders to Guinea. In the United States, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called for a mandatory 21-day quarantine for any travelers arriving from affected areas.

“We try not to get into the more political decisions within specific countries,” Burci said. While the WHO may recommend response plans to health crises, it cannot necessarily make countries enforce these recommended policies. “It should be in the interest of countries to follow [the guidelines],” Burci said. “But when you have this level of panic and anxiety, soft law shows its softness.”

Posted November 10, 2014