Namık Tan

(R) Ambassador

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (with a cap) is criticized of downplaying the corona outbreak at early stages on China’s defence, thus contributed to the global failure of perceiving the real dimensions of the crisis. (Photo: WHO)

The purpose of the World Health Organization (WHO) according to its Constitution, is to ensure that humanity achieves the highest possible level of health. The organization manages and coordinates international health work to achieve this goal.
As promised by its name, the WHO, as one of the specialized institutions of the United Nations, should not be politicized. The Director-General who heads the institution should be a professional who is uniquely qualified to practice medicine. Indeed, this criterion was always observed until the recent elections for the position in 2017.
Unfortunately not a single valid criterion was properly observed in the process of electing the acting WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to this vital mission for global human health. Dr. Ghebreyesus is not a medical doctor; he is a biologist with a PhD in public health. For first time in the Organization’s history, a person without a medical doctorate was appointed as Director-General. Mr. Ghebreyesus, an academic and politician from Ethiopia, started his political career in 1991, when he joined the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to overthrow Ethiopia’s pro-Moscow leader Mengitsu Haile Mariam.

Outbreak was downplayed at first stages

Just after COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in January 2020, the WHO Director-General faced heavy criticism in the British press. It was said that, during his time in Ethiopian government as Minister of Health (2005-2012) and as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2012-2016), he established close relations with the President of China, and that Ethiopia, which suffers large amounts of debt to China, was consequently controlled by the Director-General of the WHO. It was alleged that Ghebreyesus, who is not a medical-doctor, was only selected as Director-General following diplomatic pressure by China, and was now being accused of having become “China’s toy”.
Throughout the past few weeks, as the global Corona-crisis unfolded, I have become convinced that such criticism is not totally unfair. During the first stage of the outbreak Mr. Ghebreyesus spend much of his time defending China. He ignored legitimate warnings about distortion of news and figures, cover-ups of critical mistakes, and arrests of Chinese citizens who tried to warn the public. A simple google search will leave you with enough statements and remarks by Ghebreyesus that will undermine the reputation and reliability of the WHO.
However earlier statements by Ghebreyesus, on the WHO website, that the epidemic would not spill out, does not pose a global threat, is limited only to China, and there was no need to panic, con no longer be found on the WHO website.

Chinese efforts got him elected

Was there no way to foresee that the WHO Director-General was not up to the job? It was obvious, but China, whose activities on the African continent are rather comprehensive, wanted to see Ghebreyesus as the head of the WHO to expand the area of influence in the African continent and increase its political and economic ventures. China already had significant influence over the WHO. Margaret Chan, who was the Director-General of the WHO during the ten years preceding Ghebreyesus, was a Canadian of Chinese origin. During the WHO elections in May 2017, Ghebreyesus found himself another strong supporter: Russia. The solidarity of China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, was enough to bring the Ethiopian politician to the top position of the WHO.
This step by China and Russia, which is in consistent with populist motivations across the globe, is now responsible for terrible human cost.
I believe that the threat was initially deliberately minimized so that China was protected and this decision contributed to the failure of perceiving the dimensions of the crisis correctly and consequently, prevented the world from taking timely preventive measures. Dr. Ghebreyesus finally announced last week that the epidemic is a pandemic that poses a serious threat to global human health. Meanwhile, China has announced that the disease is completely under control in its country. But it was too late. Would the COVID-9 virus spiral out of control at the current scale, if a truly eligible person was leading the WHO? My experience tells me that we would not have been as helpless as we are today in fighting the pandemic with a more qualified WHO director-general.