WHO’s politics & integrity

WHO's politics & integrity, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO, China, Dr David Nabarro


In 2017, the election process for electing the new Director- General of the largest public health and safety organisation in the world i.e. World Health Orgainsation (WHO) had shortlisted three nominees ~ United Kingdom’s Dr David Nabarro, Pakistan’s Dr Sania Nishtar and Ethiopia’s Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. While both David Nabarro and Sania Nishtar were medical doctors, Tedros Adhanom had done his PHD and gone on to join a regional party in the fractured and murky politics of the ruling alliance in Ethiopia.

Serendipitously for Tedros Adhanom in 2017, the world was in a realpolitik churn, with the United States disinterested in multilateral organisations like WHO, whereas China was furiously bankrolling countries and multilateral organisations under its strategic ambit. The Chinese had particularly targeted Africa for its natural resources, ready ‘market’ and desperate state of financial coffers, that only a cash-rich Beijing could fill up without asking any uncomfortable questions about concerns like human rights, transparency, democracy etc., which was the Achilles heel of most despotic regimes in Africa.

China deployed its famed ‘debttraps’ in African countries to invest up to approximately $100 billion of ‘loan and aid’ package, luring Sub-Saharan countries with Belt Road Initiative (BRI) dreams. It had even installed its first international military outpost in far-flung Djibouti. The traction towards China was en bloc and African countries were becoming willingly beholden to Beijing. China used to drive voting patterns in multilateral forums like the UN.


While conventional wisdom suggested that China would throw its diplomatic might behind the nominee of its ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan’s Dr Sania Nishtar, but it was not to be as in the Chinese calculus, Pakistan was already a vassal state with its obligated subservience via investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other strategic and invaluable aid to Islamabad, whereas ensnaring the African continent was a still work-inprogress. The nomination of the first-ever African nominee in Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom, offered China an opportunity to install an obliged candidate who also happened to be the emotional choice of a bloc of 50 African countries.

China threw its diplomatic might with intense backdoor maneouvers to secure its man at the helm of WHO and consolidate its ostensible commitment towards Africa. The Chinese made a dynamic, calculated and political choice in preferring a nominee of the Government of Ethiopia over the nominee of Pakistan; the credentials of the candidate were secondary. Tedros Adhanom is undoubtedly qualified. However political manipulations and considerations along his road to the top of WHO are unmistakable. Amongst his foremost critics have been the Ethiopians themselves, who are governed by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), to which Tedros Adhanom belongs.

This alliance has ruled uninterrupted since 1991 and had ‘won’ by a margin of 100 per cent in the last two elections. At a more personal level, Tedros Adhanom was accused of covering up various administrative scams and three different cholera epidemics, as the Health Minister of Ethiopia. This aspect of covering-up that would come back to haunt him today with the coronavirus outbreak, as was mentioned years ago, by the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. He had said at that time, “He had a duty to speak truth to power and to honestly identify and report verified cholera outbreaks over an extended period”.

This tendency to cover up is eerily representative of accusations against Tedros Adhanom, even today. A global outcry to oust him from the office of Director- General of WHO is gaining currency, for his bias in favouring and aiding by the Chinese position on managing the coronavirus pandemic. From the very beginning, the long rope offered by WHO to China to studiously downplay and mislead the global community about the outbreak, the potential scale and counter-measures deployed were obviously and blatantly in support of the Chinese narrative.

As the head of a global multilateral organisation, he ought to have known and spoken the truth. It is amply clear that the virus started as early as October last year, and the Chinese continued to arrest the whistleblower doctors and journalists. And yet Tedros had incredously praised the Chinese regime for its ‘transparency’ and for ‘making us safer’. The political “covering-fire” given by Tedros Adhanom to delay the declaration of a state of public health emergency and only sending an advance team to China, as late as 10 February is inexplicable and unpardonable.

Echoing the wrong Chinese line that the virus cannot be transmitted between humans implicitly endorsed the doctored statistics. Initially, he even criticised the travel bans, Tedros Adhanom outdid his indebtedness by only declaring a pandemic on March 11, by which time over 120,000 confirmed cases in 114 countries had been reported. Today as scholars and scientists debunk the Chinese narrative and are unanimous in slamming the deliberate obfuscation, misleading and falsification of the reality by Beijing, the WHO in general, and Tedros Adhanom in particular, are complicit in allowing the situation to deteriorate to the current level.

Even today, WHO refuses to come clean on the Chinese ground reality, and it is imperative that it does so in order to ensure that the pandemic does end medically, and not politically. He has granted a virtual cleanchit to China. In the midst of an unavoidable and debilitating global lockdown, the world seethes at the supposedly ‘heroic’ (as per Tedros), stance of China in managing the crisis. The worrying comment of Peter Navarro, Assistant to the US President, that the Chinese regime has a “broad strategy” to gain control over the 15 specialised agencies of the UN is cause for alarm.

China already leads four of the UN specialised agencies while no other country leads more than one. Tedros Adhanom has denuded his own credibility and that of the World Health Organization in managing the devastating crisis, and the chorus to replace him is wholly justified, and will only be increasingly resonant. This is the price the world pays for blending ruthless politics with institutional integrity.

(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)