The World Health Organization (WHO) finds itself at a tough spot in the wake of the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic. It has been accused of ‘siding with’ the Chinese government by none other than the president of the United States himself. WHO and its director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have come under severe criticism for their conduct since the pandemic broke out in China. The organization took long enough in declaring it a pandemic, leading to countries not being vigilant enough on time.
In January, WHO had endorsed the conclusion of Chinese authorities that the Novel Coronavirus does not spread from person to person, and stated that it does not recommend any specific health measures for travellers to and from Wuhan. WHO also ignored Taiwan which had informed them that it has evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. Taiwan wrote to WHO on the 31st of December, but WHO kept denying human-to-human transmission till mid-January. Experts are of the view that this laxity and callousness is responsible for the catastrophe that has struck the world and that the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, like China’s Xi Jinping, should be held accountable for recklessly managing this deadly pandemic.
Now, as it turns out, Tedros was accused of covering up epidemics in his home country Ethiopia even while he was the health minister in the government days before he became the director of the WHO. A prominent global health expert, who was also an informal advisor to Tedros’s rival for the WHO top spot, had accused him of covering up three epidemics in Ethiopia. “Dr. Tedros is a compassionate and highly competent public health official,” Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said. “But he had a duty to speak truth to power and to honestly identify and report verified cholera outbreaks over an extended period.”
Tedros was Ethiopia’s health minister between 2005-12 and outbreaks had occurred in 2006, 2009 and 2011. He had said these were only “acute watery diarrhoea” in areas where testing is “difficult”. However, in 2007, the UN and other aid agencies insisted that laboratory tests showed that the deaths were due to cholera. Ethiopia was also accused of covering up a cholera epidemic in 2017. New York Times reported that the Ethiopian government was saying the same thing in 2017 what Tedros had said on previous occasions.
NYT noted, “Somalia, which borders Ethiopia, is currently battling a large cholera outbreak, and a new vaccine is being deployed there. Aid officials believe cholera is also circulating in the neighbouring regions of Ethiopia, but without confirmation, they cannot release the vaccine. Ethiopia’s health ministry is still calling it “acute watery diarrhoea,” and told VOA News last month that it would not change that report without laboratory confirmation, which it said it did not have.”
Tedros’s conduct as the health minister of Ethiopia raises further questions about the manner in which WHO was seen prioritizing China’s grip over the narrative of the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic. It also casts further aspersions regarding the functioning and mannerisms of such global institutions which are often shrouded in secrecy. After all of this is over, clamour may well rise across the world for an investigation into the WHO’s conduct during the entire affair.