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Coronavirus: Is WHO Chief Tedros Ghebreyesus on the chopping block?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 18 May – 22 May
Chidozie Uzoezie
By Chidozie Uzoezie

Chidozie Uzoezie is a London-trained Biomedical Scientist and Lagos-based freelance writer. He is also the CEO of The Afritraveller, a trendy Travel and Tourism Blog, as well as the Founder of the African Aviation Group on Facebook.

Posted on Wednesday, 20 May 2020 16:03

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) attends the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Genev, Switzerland, May 19, 2020. Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via REUTERS

When Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus formally announced his candidacy for the post of the Director-General of the World Health Organization on 24 May 2016, he certainly received a mixed bag of interest and expectations.

And when, on 23 May 2017, he was finally elected as the 8th Director-General for the World Health Organization, he was still caught in the euphoria of the moment.

However, when he assumed office on 1 July 2017 as the first African ever to lead the WHO, it became obvious to him that he had bitten a lot more than he could chew. He knew it wasn’t going to be a calm walk in the park.

He knew exactly what he was up against.

Preparing for internal and external forces

In addition to buckling up against the regular internal and external forces at the World Health Organization, Tedros also braced for the usual public health emergencies. He prepared for HIV/AIDS, for SARS, Polio, Malaria and Lassa fever. Perhaps, he even braced up for Ebola in case it re-emerged on a large scale.

But, he most certainly didn’t anticipate that, in less than three years after becoming the head of the WHO, he would be leading the world during the worst pandemic in over a hundred years.  And worse still, he didn’t imagine he would be caught up in complex international politics in the middle of a highly challenging global pandemic.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Calls for free COVID-19 vaccine ahead of WHO assembly

On 28 March, 2020, US-based Fox News ran a report that sought to bring into focus the ‘questionable past’ of  Tedros following the global COVID-19 response. According to the report, Tedros, who is from Ethiopia, had covered up cholera epidemics, supported a terrorist organization and inflated his resume to claim he had conquered malaria and HIV.

He was also accused of romancing with and being pro-China, and by deduction, anti-Europe and anti America. In the final analysis of the report, certain western countries are now wondering whether Tedros is the right man to lead the WHO through the coronavirus pandemic.

These are very strong accusations and the terrorism angle makes things even more interesting.

“Square peg in a round hole”

Seemingly, Tedros is now regarded in some quarters as a square peg in a round hole. He’s seen as a misfit at the World Health Organization. Speaking to Fox News in March, a foreign affairs expert, Gordon Chang said: “Tedros is the second-to-last person who should be heading the World Health Organization at this time. The last person is [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.”

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Devoid of any ambiguity, these disapproving statements have far reaching implications and are indicative of a vote of no confidence for the WHO chief. Apparently, for Chang and many others, Tedros is a stooge and a tool in the hands of China. For Chang, the President Jinping might as well be the Director General of the World Health Organization. For them, Tedros is not in charge.

Tedros’ background

With a PhD in Community Health from the University of Nottingham, and an MSc in Immunology of Infectious Diseases from the University of London, Tedros arguably  has the qualifications for public health and global health emergency response. In 2011, he received the President Jimmy Carter’s Humanitarian Award for his contributions to global public health.

His election as the WHO’s number one came hot on the heels of a his tenure as Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. That post was preceded by a seven-year tenure as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health, during which Ethiopia’s health system experienced a significant improvement.

READ MORE WHO’s Tedros: ‘Don’t abandon the poorest to coronavirus’

By all standards, Tedros is an achiever, not only in public health, but also in international diplomacy. It’s strange therefore, how all that globally recognised competence suddenly means nothing to the his critics.

Death threats

In a very dangerous and disturbing twist, Tedros recently raised an alarm over a death threat to his life. In a press briefing on 6 April 2020, the 55 year old public health expert said he had been receiving death threats, abuses, name calling and racist attacks for more than three months.

It wasn’t clear where the purported attacks were coming from, but Tedros called on countries of the world, particularly the US and China, to eschew politics and work together to achieve a coronavirus-free world. It’s no longer news that the pre COVID-19 trade war between the US and China has precipitated a new kind of war, namely The Pandemic War.

And while China and certain countries from the West are engaged in a war of words and the blame game, Tedros would seem to be the scapegoat or even the sacrificial lamb of these two feuding parties.

“Find the delicate balance between the two”

For all intents and purposes, this column is not an attempt to drum up support for Tedros. In fact, I’m not dismissive of the accusations levelled against him, but I also lack the capacity to uphold them.

The patriotic African in me would want to support a fellow African, but the humanity in me would want to expose evil. This column is an attempt to find the delicate balance between the two, although, I may have a small bias for one.

However, I mustn’t fail to point out the enormous gravity of a death threat and its unpalatable consequences. I can understand racial comments and racial profiling (I’ve been a victim on more than one occasion), but a death threat is extreme and wholly unacceptable.

It should be condemned in the strongest of terms.

Sudden attention

Now in his third year of a five-year term as the WHO Director General, why is his candidacy suddenly a subject of debate in 2020? Why are his qualifications and leadership qualities suddenly being scrutinized? Is this a coincidence or is there more than meets the eye? If there’s something Tedros is doing right at the WHO, then is this merely a scripted and orchestrated distraction to take people’s minds away from it?

Among others, Tedros has been accused by the US of cosying up to China. Is there an ongoing conspiracy to bring Tedros down? Is there a deliberate attempt to steer him away from the current pandemic and box him into a position of incompetence? Or is Tedros as guilty as charged?

The international politics surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic is deeply intriguing.

Yes, the world is currently being ravaged by the COVID-19 virus, but apparently, there is ample time for international politics at the World Health Organisation. And Tedros appears to be on the hot seat, and even on the chopping board too.

Bottom line: Whether he survives it remains to be seen. However, as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the world, Tedros wants to focus on saving lives. There’s a lot he needs in this pandemic, distraction is not one of them.

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