WHO Playbook For Responses To Media Queries On Suppressed Italian COVID-19 Report – Raises More Questions than Answers Preparedness 15/12/2020 • Elaine Ruth Fletcher & Nicoletta Dentico Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Rialto Bridge, Venice, deserted in lockdown – scene from the suppressed WHO report, “An Unprecedented Challenge.” Second in a series: In the wake of the expanding media attention to a suppressed WHO report evaluating the early days of Italy’s COVID-19 pandemic response, WHO has begun circulating guidelines to staff for responding to the media over questions that have remarked about recommendations for Q&A The internal WHO memo obtained by Health Policy Watch instructs staff to tell the media that the report An unprecedented challenge was recalled after WHO “found some factual inaccuracies related to the timeline of the pandemic – and that the data had not been properly verified.” The detailed guidance – entitled “Reactive Q&A in case of media questions” and red-marked “Internal- do not share” provides no details about what “factual inaccuracies” were in fact unearthed in the report – which had undergone multiple layers of formal WHO review and approval before its publication on 13 May – and subsequent removal. Framed as a Mock Q&A WHO internal guidelines for responding to journalists’ queries about the suppression of the WHO report “An unprecedented challenge” on Italy’s pandemic response – Page 1 Framed as a mock Q &A, the WHO guidance poses questions that the media may ask about the report in forthcoming days – and provides explicit instructions for how WHO staff should respond. More than corporate guidance, however, the tone and detail of the mock responses build a corporate narrative that clearly supports the moves made in May by WHO Assistant Director General Ranieri Guerra, a political appointee handpicked by WHO Director General Tedros – to bury the report – against the views of the career professionals that developed it. The WHO recommended media “answers” shape a public narrative supporting Guerra’s attempts to change or remove key report sections that were critical of the Italian government’s preparedness efforts – over the objections of professional staff that said this amounted to political censorship. The report, compiled by a large WHO team, under the direction of Francesco Zambon, WHO’s coordinator of the WHO European Office for Investment for Health and Development, Venice, had undergone multiple layers of scientific review and publications approval prior to being published. Street vendor in Italy – Scene from the suppressed WHO Report, “An Unprecedented Challenge” It was withdrawn by WHO just a day later – in what critics say amounted to a worrisome act of political censorship – led by ADG Guerra who had a vested political interest in seeing to the report’s suppression. Guerra, a former senior official in Italy’s Health Ministry, was in charge of the country’s prevention activities during his 2014-2017 term in the government. It was a period when a national pandemic plan dating from 2006 was supposed to have been updated according to an 2013 European Commission request. But the plan was not updated. WHO Assistant Director General, Ranieri Guerra Guerra reportedly sought to blur the WHO record over that omission by ordering Zambon to amend language in the WHO report to state the opposite – that Italy’s pandemic plan had been “updated” in 2016. Zambon refused, according to a lengthy series of Health Policy Watch interviews with Italian and WHO insiders. Those were supported by a series of leaked email exchanges between Guerra and Zambon over the censorship issues, first published several weeks ago in Italy’s highly-regarded RAI Report TV series. Francesco Zambon, WHO European Office for Investment for Health and Development Yet another new email, detailing Zambon’s subsequent protests to his boss, Hans Kluge, head of WHO’s Regional Office for Europe, over the pressures that Guerra had applied, was disclosed in a story Tuesday by Health Policy Watch. In the 27 May email to Kluge, Zambon described the pressures Guerra had applied – and warned of the impacts to WHO’s credibility and independence that could occur as a result of political censorship moves. Zambon attributed the pressures to Guerra’s own fears of political embarrassment – due to his own failure to update the 2006 pandemic plan. WHO Soundbites Deflect Charges that Censorship Was Inappropriate WHO internal guidelines for responding to journalists’ queries about the suppression of the WHO report “An unprecedented challenge” on Italy’s pandemic response – Page 2 Over the past weeks, the Italian media obsession with “An unprecedented challenge” – the report’s origins and suppression – has spread internationally. Observers also see it as a bellwether for how WHO may also handle other, even more contentious investigations ongoing now into the global pandemic response and the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus that first emerged in Wuhan, China. Critics wonder if those forthcoming WHO reports also be reviewed in light of their politically correctness – and cleansed of language critical of any government in the world or any former national government official with political influence in WHO? In the case of the Italian report, the internal WHO media guidance, sets a standard for that – deflecting complaints over Guerra’s attempts to alter the report – and justifying his attempts to censor unflattering phrases. Has WHO been covering up for Italy? This is one of the key questions in the mock series that the WHO guidance poses. WHO response: No, WHO engages in frank and forthright communications with governments on an ongoing basis. The organization undertakes all activities impartially and without fear of retribution or expectation of favor. However, there are emails from WHO staff saying that they were doing that. WHat can you say about this? WHO response: Those messages refer to avoiding unnecessary criticism of Italy at the most difficult time in the response. This had nothing to do with covering up information. A pandemic response should focus on saving lives. We have a mechanism for counties to evaluate their respective response and offering guidance for effective response. The media statements also pin the blame onto Zambon for not involving the Italian government directly in the redaction of what was supposed to be an independent review of Italy’s pandemic response – and one in which Guerra was the named liaison. WHO Refuses Italy’s Request to let Staff Testify in Investigation Over Pandemic Response WHO internal guidelines for responding to journalists’ queries about the suppression of the WHO report “An unprecedented challenge” on Italy’s pandemic response – Page 3 The WHO memo further states that WHO will refuse Italy’s recent requests to allow Zambon testify in an ongoing Italian investigation into the management of the pandemic’s early days – in the northern region of Val Seriana – which was particularly hard hit. Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent the request to WHO’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus requesting permission for Zambon to be interviewed by the legal team investigating the slow and faulty government response to the pandemic in the region. This is after Guerra did already provide testimony to the prosecutors. WHO’s mock response to questions about the legal case states: “WHO staff are international civil servants. The organization and its employees undertake all activities impartially and without fear of retribution, expectation of favour. To preserve its objective and independence, the organization does not become involved in any political administrative or legal matters at the national level.” [If pressed] the guidelines state that WHO staff should add: “Rainieri Guerra spoke with the Bergamo authorities in his personal capacity, WHO did not authorize him to speak to the prosecutor.” With regards to Zambon specifically, the WHO memo instructs staff to state: “If Dr Zambon testifies in his personal capacity, he cannot speak about any matters related to WHO, his work or function with WHO, other WHO officials, or disclose or refer to any documents or information owned by WHO, including correspondence or verbal exchanges,” states the guidance from WHO about how to respond to media inquiries about the legal investigation, adding. “WHO has requested information from the Prosecutor and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy and has offered to reply to written technical questions in writing. No reply to these questions has been received.” Page 4 WHO Confirms – Using Guideline Soundbites Word For Word Asked Tuesday night by Health Policy Watch about the pending Italian request for Zambon to testify, a WHO European Office spokesperson replied, using the memo’s guideline language, almost word for word. It stated: “WHO has requested information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy (from the prosecutor) and has offered to reply to written technical questions in writing. No reply has been received. “WHO staff are international civil servants. The organization and its employees undertake all activities impartially and without fear of retribution or expectation of favour. “To preserve its objectivity and independence, the organization does not become involved in any political, administrative or legal matters at the national level. “Ranieri Guerra spoke with the Bergamo authorities in his personal capacity. WHO did not authorize him to speak to the prosecutor. If Dr Zambon decides to testify in his personal capacity, he cannot speak about any matters related to WHO, his work or function with WHO, other WHO officials or disclose or refer to any documents or information owned by WHO, including correspondence or verbal exchanges.” WHO Narrative Justifies Guerra’s Attempts to Suppress Report’s Critical Phrases Among the other key points covered in the WHO narrative of the doomed report as it is to be presented to the media, are the following: Censorship: “Did Ranieri Guerra censor the report? “No, that was an internal WHO decision taken at the level of the Regional Office. The document was removed because it contained some factual inaccuracies related to the timeline of the pandemic,” states the memo. Official status of document: Although the report, had gone through all the layers of official WHO approval and bore a WHO copyright and logo, the WHO memo instructs staff to say that it “was not an official WHO document” and was “never sent to the [Italian] Ministry of Health, which therefore has never assessed or commented on it” according to the memo. … . Deletion of embarrassing phrases: The WHO memo defends Guera’s attempts to remove a report reference to the initial hospital response as “improvised, chaotic and creative?”. Pandemic plan update: In a mock question that asks: “Is it true that Italy’s pandemic plan had not been updated since 2006, and the initial response from hospitals was “improvised, chaotic and creative?” WHO replies stating: “The COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented and many countries have faced huge challenges, including Italy. Italy was the first country in the European Region to be hard-hit, with the situation escalating in a matter of days. The initial response was particularly complex. However, words like ‘improvised, chaotic and creative’ do not do justice to the tremendous efforts of the Government and the regions.” Cover-up: While denying that WHO has been “covering up for Italy,” the memo effectively defends Guerra’s attempts to squash or alter key statements in the report on the basis that they would be embarrassing to the Italian government. If reporters asked about the “leaked emails from the Regional Director appearing to keep the report under wraps” WHO officers should reply as follows: “The message referred to the importance of engaging with the national counterpart, which is a normal practice to check data and facts.. However the Minister of Health of Italy was apparently not informed in an appropriate way and in due time”. WHO internal guidelines for responding to journalists’ queries about the suppression of the WHO report “An unprecedented challenge” on Italy’s pandemic response – Page 5 Zambon – Italian Ministry Of Health Could Not Co-Author Independent Report The independent review of Italy’s response had passed through all of the usual WHO publications approvals – before Guerra noticed language that he found politically sensitive, and demanded changes in specific texts in a series of emails to Zambon around 11 May. In his 27 May email to WHO’s European Regional Director, Hans Kluge, disclosed by Health Policy Watch in a previous story, Zambon had stressed that Guerra was the person who had been tasked with conveying an outline of the report to the Minister of Health Robert Speranza in April. And Guerra also was interviewed by one of the report’s co-authors, so he was therefore “fully informed.” If he did not convey the outline to them, “he is directly responsible for the incident with the Minister/President ISS [Italy’s National Health Institute (Istituto Superiore di Sanità, ISS)], that he not only created, but ignited,” recounted Zambon. However, in order to preserve the independent nature of the WHO review, Zambon said, the report was never intended to be directly co-authored with Italy’s Ministry of Health. At stake, is: “WHO independence – This is an independent review. I cannot see how this could be written together, nor reviewed by the involved parties such as the MOH, ISS as suggested.” Zambon also warned Kluge about the damaging precedent the censorship move could set in light of the recent World Health Assembly mandate to WHO to carry out other politically charged investigations into the global pandemic response and the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus – which have already encountered political resistance from China. WHO Response to Health Policy Watch – ‘We Won’t Discuss Factual Inaccuracies’ Asked in a follow-up email from Health Policy Watch Tuesday evening to detail what were the factual inaccuracies that led to the withdrawal of the report, a WHO spokesperson declined to say: Q. Health Policy Watch: What specifically are the errors in the report? Since the report is online and circulating widely, please be specific with an actual date, number or other factual information that you found, post-publication, to be so incorrect that the report had to be withdrawn – rather than merely corrected? WHO: We are not going to discuss factual inaccuracies. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.