Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Early this month, Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), gave an impassioned speech during a press conference where he responded to the death threats he received and the racial slurs he was subjected to:
‘I am proud of being black or negro,’ he said. But ‘when the whole black community was insulted, when Africa is insulted, then I don’t tolerate, then I say people are crossing the line.’
In the meantime, there was also a campaign launched against him to step down from the leadership of the WHO. This was made in the form of protest petition, on Twitter, YouTube and mainstream media.
But why him and why now, especially at a time when his institution deserves support, and he should be coming out as a hero given the burden on his shoulders?
Tedros is an embodiment of hard work, untiring public service and valuable soft skills. Because of his strong background, he made it to the top undeterred by a modest beginning. He rose from being a middle-level civil servant in a health department of a region in Ethiopia to leading a UN agency. He is living evidence, rare as it may be, that individuals, with strong self-belief, could rise meteorically from little known places.
Tedros exemplified success as Ethiopian minister for Health from 2005 to 2012 as well as serving his nation as Foreign Minister from 2012 to 2016. By implementing health policies, which at the time focused on prevention and the training of ‘foot-doctors’ (deployed for health education, primary health care and sanitation), he delivered concrete results on various health metrics. (See also ‘Barefoot doctor and pandemics: Ethiopia’s experience and Covid-19’ by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot.)
In doing as such, he impacted the lives of millions of Ethiopians positively. The success has been acknowledged by country assessment of the Millennium Development Goals by the UNDP.
After a strenuous campaign, Tedros got the winning ticket to head the WHO in 2017. Through his election, the Ethiopian government was vindicated for its well-designed and implemented health policy. Africans felt reassured in his election, which no African had been able or allowed to achieve before. They were delighted to see him voted in as a director-general given his track record and the strong symbolism to be found in his rise.
In fact, it was also taken as proof that whoever works hard with a clear purpose, coupled with an attitude for strong public service, stands a good deal of chance to find himself in a position of global leadership.
Unfortunately, today, this symbol of hard work and perseverance is being challenged at a critical moment when the entire world should rally behind him.
The chief detractor of Tedros has been President Donald Trump, who, among other things, recently tweeted ‘The W.H.O. really blew it.’The President even decided to suspend US funding to the WHO, pending investigation of the conduct of the organisation.
Activists in the campaign against Tedros later backed Trump’s condemnation of the WHO. A preposterous article titled ‘The crimes of Tedros Adhanom’, which Trump has quoted without naming the writer, is being cited by different hateful speakers on different occasions. Interestingly, the article calls even for the trial of Tedros as a human rights criminal, and is replete with unsubstantiated accusations, fabrications and overly generalised statements, smacking of ideological attack.
One of the more prominent conspiracy theories against Tedros pertains to the relationship between the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Tedros. There is no new revelation here except that the TPLF has retreated from power in the centre to continue to operate at the level of the regional states. In any case, that he was a high-profile politician from the TPLF and the coalition it belonged to, the EPRDF, until a few months before his campaign for WHO director generalship is no secret – in fact, that was his launching pad. Critical to remember is that the EPRDF had been the West’s ally, in the war against terrorism, despite the former’s left-leaning ideology. I would add that many saw Tedros as effective technocrat first, and a pragmatic politician second, partly because of his civilian background. As a politician, his joviality was well-known, markedly different from the austere manners of EPRDF politicians. Perhaps, this attribute and image of him was one reason for his success in establishing an international network of supporters, helping him rise to the top.
It is also being alleged that Tedros was party to a cover-up of cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia while he was a Minister of Health. In relation to this, his critics accuse him and his government of renaming cholera a ‘watery diarrhoea’ to make this epidemic look less threatening. The criticism is made without proof, apparently with the intention of scoring points against Tedros. The allegation is not factually supported, if consistently made, as far as one closely observes media invectives on this.
His past being what it is and well-known, what are then the justifications for the call of his resignation? Is his actual performance at the WHO any reason for that?
The tirade against the WHO by Trump and members of the US Republican Party is largely based on Taiwan’s assertion that the organisation downplayed the severity and spread of the virus despite the country’s attempt to alert it as early as December 31. Trump said that the WHO should be brought to account for hiding a global crisis in the making for pandering to China.
‘WHO ignored warnings from Taiwan and continued to reiterate China’s false talking points that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel pathogen even as late as January 14, 2020,’ reads an article on the Fox News Channel website, citing Taiwanese authorities.
The WHO denied that Taiwan even alerted it to the potential spread of the virus. Granted Taiwan’s statement, and the organisation’s denial aside, the country’s charge is based on its enquiry to the WHO mentioning the occurrence as an ‘atypical pneumonia’, ‘reminiscent of SARS’, and what public health professionals could discern from these wordings.
Lawrence Gostin, an American professor specialising in public health law and a former critic of Tedros, has a salutary assessment about Tedros’s work. Stephen Buranye, contributing for the Guardian, cites him saying that the WHO only delayed ‘shortly’ in recognising that Coronavirus is a public health emergency of international concern and that he does not think ‘the timing had any impact on the trajectory of COVID-19’.
Gostin, in fact, praises Tedros for being ‘the symbol of leadership in the course of Coronavirus’.
It is true that Tedros’s praise for Chinese actions against Coronavirus, or the exchange of pleasantries with Chinese leaders should be unsettling to a US president. No conclusive evidence has been presented, however, to convince an independent jury that Tedros has been ‘pro-China’, save the niceties in public.
In response to this, Professor Gostin has stressed that Tedros’s strategy was to coax China to be transparent and cooperate internationally rather than criticising the government. Tedros’ praise of China, effusive as it may have looked at one point, underlines the fact that diplomacy is very much part of the game in bringing everybody around the table.
For that matter, Tedros is a leader of a global organisation with scarce funding, about two billion dollars in 2019, which is dependent on the good-will of political leaders, and the cooperation of big and small countries. He is required to be approachable and a good wisher to all who matter.
It is interesting that only recently, Tedros said positive things about President Trump’s response in the fight against the pandemic, which may be a bit over the top when it comes to Trump. This is despite the fact that the US accepted the outbreak as ‘pandemic’ a month after the WHO had declared it as such.
‘The WHO struggled to get these same nations [US & UK] to prepare for future pandemics. Now the pandemic is here, and they are at the centre of the crisis, the WHO has been unable to keep them following its advice,’ wrote Buranye in the Guardian.
Hence, Tedros’ honourable statements about Trump or Xi Jinping fall within the need to be as comforting as he could be to world leaders as the head of a multilateral institution.
Maybe Tedros is not steeped enough into the subtleties of global politics and the full import of what he thinks are diplomatic gestures. There is a clue to this in his attempt to appoint the late Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, as a good-will ambassador of the WHO.
But, again, this is a relatively benign matter that should only be treated lightly in the grand scheme of things. First and foremost, he must be judged on the merits of his leadership; on how best he is at leading the WHO, how effective he is in the fight against the current global challenge, Covid-19.
For that, no one would be a better witness than Anthony Fauci (MD), head of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in America since 1984, and a well-known physician and immunologist. A couple of weeks ago, he appreciated Tedros for his leadership and good work at the WHO. In public, he all but gently brushed off the assessments of Tedros’ critics.
The final verdict on the WHO’s performance, and Tedros, on Covid-19 will be made months, if not years, later. But we at least know that Tedros and his team are pleading every day with the world, sounding out the alarm about dangers of the virus and insisting on precautions. It is only fair to compare this against the handling of Ebola virus in 2013/14 by Margaret Chan, the previous WHO director-general, which drew wide criticism short of a call for resignation. Tedros has been a strong hand in controlling the recent Ebola outbreak in the DRC.
This is not to mean that Tedros is without flaws. He is a human being, after all. But lack of serious attention and shortage of commitment are never those. There is no justification for starting a campaign against him, a man giving every bit of himself to international public service. This is more so when there is no evidence of lack of commitment or competence in the discharge of his duties. Only self-interest groups, those looking for a scapegoat and ideological extremists are making pleas for his ousting.
Competent and hardworking Africans deserve a place of leadership in global institutions. Tedros has given hope to many well-meaning Africans that this is possible. Attempts to push him out must, therefore, be seen within a context; within the legacy of the age-old interest to see Africans playing second-fiddle roles at the global level.
This is not to diminish the fact that the WHO finds itself trapped in the rivalry between the two major global powers, the US and China. It also seems that Trump and the Republicans have chosen the WHO as good material for their re-election campaign, and to save face on their failure to effectively fight against Covid-19.
The WHO’s functions are to declare a disease pandemic, establish and promote standards, coordinate the global effort against health threats, develop protocols of disease treatment and management, release timely information about health, and sound out validated warnings and alarms. It is not the mandate of the WHO to repair malfunctioning health systems within countries. If anything, the new virus has exposed a fundamental weakness of health systems in some Western countries, not least in the US, which the WHO cannot do much about.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and other global leaders have added their voice in defence of the WHO and its director-general. Guterres says that the outbreak is ‘unprecedented’ and that any assessment about its handling should be deferred in the interest of not hurting the fight. Bill Gates has likewise expressed his concern over President Trump’s decision to suspend funding at this critical moment.
Dr Tedros has also received support from the African Union, with the current chairman and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa calling for ‘solidarity, unity of purpose and better coordination to ensure that we are able to overcome this common enemy.’
Everyone in favour of the prevalence of a merit-based international system should unite behind Tedros. A unified response is critical to fighting bigoted and ideology-laden campaigns against proven leaders from Africa.