The World Health Organization (WHO) last week finally declared the coronavirus from China that rapidly spread across the world a pandemic. Now, with more than 150,000 confirmed cases globally and more than 5,700 deaths, the question is why it took so long for the WHO to perceive what many health officials and governments had identified far earlier.
We believe the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, like China’s Xi Jinping, should be held accountable for recklessly managing this deadly pandemic. Tedros apparently turned a blind eye to what happened in Wuhan and the rest of China and, after meeting with Xi in January, has helped China to play down the severity, prevalence and scope of the COVID-19 outbreak.
From the outset, Tedros has defended China despite its gross mismanagement of the highly contagious disease. As the number of cases and the death toll soared, the WHO took months to declare the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, even though it had met the criteria of transmission between people, high fatality rates and worldwide spread.
When President Trump took a critical step to stop the coronavirus at U.S. borders by issuing a travel ban as early as Jan. 31, Tedros said widespread travel bans and restrictions were not needed to stop the outbreak and could “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.” He warned that interfering with transportation and trade could harm efforts to address the crisis, and advised other countries not to follow the U.S. lead.
When he should have been focusing on global counter-pandemic efforts, Tedros instead was politicizing the crisis and helping Xi to shirk his responsibility for a series of wrongdoings in addressing the outbreak. Tedros used the WHO platform to defend the Chinese government’s gross violation of human rights. For example, from its first case discovered in November to its Wuhan lockdown, and even until today, China has been dishonest about the coronavirus’s origin and prevalence. People who tried to uncover it were detained or disappeared, their online reports and posts deleted. China has misinformed and misled the world, and Tedros joined this effort by publicly praising China’s “transparency” in battling the spread of the disease.
When Xi ordered Chinese health officials to speed up the development of drugs by using “integrated Chinese traditional herbal medicine and Western medicine,” the WHO’s official publication, “Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19),” made a subtle change. Chinese netizens found a discrepancy between the Chinese and English versions of a list of measures deemed ineffective against COVID-19. The English version listed four items — smoking, wearing multiple masks, taking antibiotics, and traditional herbal remedies. The fourth item was not included in the Chinese version. (Today the English version also has deleted that item.)
China recently pledged $20 million to help the WHO fight the COVID-19 outbreak, for which Tedros thanked Xi. But we note China’s connections to Tedros’s homeland of Ethiopia, now called East Africa’s “Little China” because it has become China’s bridgehead to influence Africa and a key to China’s Belt and Road initiative there. Indeed, China has invested heavily in Ethiopia.
Tedros was elected to his position with the WHO in 2017, despite the fact that he was not trained as a medical doctor and had no global health management experience. A former minister of health and minister of foreign affairs for Ethiopia, Tedros is an executive member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) political party, which came to power through a struggle in 1991 and has been listed as a perpetrator in the Global Terrorism Database. After he became the WHO’s chief, critics questioned Tedros’s attempt to appoint then-Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that Tedros is not fit to lead the WHO. Because of his leadership, the world may have missed a critical window to halt the pandemic or mitigate its virulence. The world is now battling rising infections and many countries have imposed restrictions. As leader of the WHO, Tedros should be held accountable for his role in mismanaging efforts to control the spread of the virus.
By Bradley A. Thayer
professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio