At a global conference on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed 93-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador” of NCDs.

At that time, Tedros praised Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies to provide healthcare to all.”

However, the head of WHO has soon rescinded the appointment of Mugabe as a goodwill envoy. “Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment of H.E. President Robert Mugabe as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for NCDs (non-communicable diseases) in Africa. As a result, I have decided to rescind the appointment,” expressed Tedros in a tweet on his Twitter account.

This announcement came after receiving widespread outrage and criticism among international leaders and health experts, including heads of state, human rights organisations and the global health community.

Tedros asserted that he had “listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised”, and the decision was made “in the best interests of the World Health Organisation.”

Pressing WHO issues as Mugabe’s appointment challenges WHO goals

WHO’s goal stresses on "ensuring the highest attainable level of health for all people”.

WHO is currently facing a few major challenges – cholera outbreak in Yemen, plague in Madagascar – besides recovering reputation. Photo credit: Reuters
WHO is currently facing a few major challenges – cholera outbreak in Yemen, plague in Madagascar – besides recovering reputation. Photo credit: Reuters

Yet, the organisation is currently facing several major challenges: the agency is struggling to handle pressing global health issues, besides restoring its credibility from past mismanagement. Furthermore, the international community had been looking to Tedros to introduce amendments to the current operations of WHO.

WHO had previously been criticised for being slow in tackling the Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2015, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa. Meanwhile, the agency is also dealing with a massive cholera outbreak in Yemen with more than 815,000 suspected cases (in Yemen itself) and 2,156 deaths. A more pressing concern revolves a plague outbreak in Madagascar, which reported at least 94 deaths in two months by now.

With the country’s once prosperous economy falling apart, Zimbabwe’s healthcare system has shown failures under Mugabe’s rule. In 2008, the charity Physicians for Human Rights released a report stating that Mugabe’s policies had led directly to "the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school and the beatings of health workers."

"The government of Robert Mugabe presided over the dramatic reversal of its population's access to food, clean water, basic sanitation and health care," the group concluded.

To make matters worse, Mugabe has also long been criticised in his home country for getting frequent medical treatment abroad, which also has cost impoverished Zimbabwe millions of dollars.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe is also Africa’s largest producer and exporter of tobacco (a sector the country is trying to expand), where more than 50% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop is exported to China. This is cited by critics as further evidence that Mugabe may be a poor choice to advocate for resolutions to chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Hence, it could be questionable if Mugabe takes up the “goodwill ambassador role” of WHO, with risk of overshadowing the WHO’s global efforts.

“Robert Mugabe fails to represent the values WHO should stand for and those that Dr Tedros has stood for,” tweeted Dr Jeremy Farrar, a global health specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust charity and the NCD alliance, representing health groups combating chronic diseases.

Tedros has yet to publicly explain why he thought Mugabe was the right fit to the role, as Mugabe’s appointment comes with risk of overshadowing the WHO’s global work. Photo credit: Reuters
Tedros has yet to publicly explain why he thought Mugabe was the right fit to the role, as Mugabe’s appointment comes with risk of overshadowing the WHO’s global work. Photo credit: Reuters

Doubts over Tedros’ decision to appoint Mugabe at the first place

Following the recent revoke of the appointment announcement, Tedros has yet to publicly explain his stance of appointing Mugabe at the very beginning. Mugabe’s appointment – then rescinded – has brought uneasiness within the broad community of people who work with and for the WHO, about Tedros’ judgement – and ‘possible’ damages from it that could direct impact the organisation.

Naming Mugabe “will certainly undermine international support for WHO and drive away many of the donors, industry, and most governments who are needed for WHO’s efforts on NCDs to succeed,” warned Tom Bollyky, a senior global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I think some of the arguments for his candidacy were that he’d been both a health minister and a foreign minister, and merging the technical and diplomatic aspects should have been his strength,” noted Jimmy Kolker, a long-time USdiplomat and former assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kolker remarked that many observers are hoping Tedros will manage to engage the African continent’s political leaders in the fight against health problems, that are too often ignored. As far as NCDs are concerned, he expressed, the country’s “track record is negligible. And their track record on other things they should be paying attention to is poor.” MIMS

Read more:
WHO launches new Non-Communicable Disease Progress Monitor 2017
GTFCC: Global coalition aims for a 90% reduction in cholera deaths by 2030
Can WHO's success against neglected tropical diseases continue?

Sources:
http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/world/2017/10/23/mugabe-removed-as-who-goodwill-envoy-after-outrage/
http://www.sfgate.com/news/medical/article/World-Health-Organization-revokes-appointment-of-12297132.php
https://www.statnews.com/2017/10/22/who-mugabe-post-rescinded/
https://www.statnews.com/2017/10/21/outcry-chief-rethinking-mugabe-goodwill-ambassador-post/ **
https://www.statnews.com/2017/10/20/robert-mugabe-who-appointment/