The WHO Executive Board should question, it is not. Clearly the 3 deputy directors-general (Soumya Swaminathan, Jane Ellison, Peter Salama) can’t question. WHO is an autonomous entity under UN. May be the secretary-general can question but we haven’t heard from him yet. Since nobody is asking, USA is.
First thing first –
Who is Tedros?
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is an Ethiopian microbiologist and an internationally recognized malaria researcher. He is the Director-General of the World Health Organization since 2017. He is the first DG, who is not a medical doctor.
Some UN positions may be filled more out of political compulsion than for merit but Tedros is not a nobody, he had had a very illustrious career behind him before he became the Director-General of the WHO.
During its 140th meeting in January 2017, the Executive Board of the WHO shortlisted Tedros as the front runner out of six candidates through two rounds of secret voting. He was elected with an overwhelming 133 votes out of 185.
That said, Tedros is not a stranger to politics – Ethiopian, African and world politics in general. He served as Ethiopia’s health minister, and later as foreign affairs minister too.
“Tedros’s candidacy for WHO director general was opposed vigorously by several Ethiopian parties, due to his career in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF provided millions of dollars in financial support for Tedros’s candidacy in WHO.” (WiKi)
At one point, the editor-in-chief of Lancet, a prominent medical journal, called Tedros “Dictator-General” [ of WHO ]
The COVID-China and Tedros’ role
- In January 2020, Tedros met with the top Chinese leadership.
- In the first week of February 2020, he stated that there was no need for the world to take measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade “such as worldwide travel restrictions”.
- In March, he called the pandemic “the defining global health crisis of our time”. He then urged countries to increase testing for the virus, also warned of the damage the virus could do in poor countries.
- Tedros was perceived to have acted slowly in his efforts to stem the epidemic, and as having a too close relationship with the government of China.
- Tedros and the WHO were also criticised for the delay in declaring COVID a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (e.g. pandemic).
- If Tedro were not soft on China, it would have been in a spot. The allegation is, he helped China play down the seriousness and that caused China to put the whole world at risk.
- China has a very high stake here, it dare not risk its business by being frank about COVID.
“According to Georgetown University professor Lawrence Gostin, Tedros’ strategy on China was a more politically strategic one, rather than a critical approach. Tedros praised China for its containment measures, describing them as a “new standard for outbreak control”, a position which was criticised in light of China’s efforts to suppress information.” (WiKi)
Observers also contrasted Tedros’ praise for China with the concerns voiced by some countries and organizations over the Chinese government’s slow initial response and its resistance to cooperate with international disease-tracking efforts.
African leaders expressed support for Tedros’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Trump’s 3 complaints
- WHO criticized the U.S. travel ban to China,
- the WHO was delayed in responding to and characterizing COVID as a pandemic,
- that the WHO is China-centric.
On 8 April 2020, during a regular COVID-19 press briefing, a journalist asked for a response to these three complaints. Tedros gave only an evasive & impassioned reply. He also heaped accusations on Taiwan of making racist attacks on him. Taiwan said there was evidence of a mainland Chinese attempt to create the false impression that Taiwanese people had attacked Tedros in the first place.
The Ethiopian connection
China and Ethiopia have very close relations. China’s direct investment in that country is upwards of $4 billion and their bilateral trade is $6 billion.
Between 2000 and 2014, China gave $12 billion in loan finance (usually tied to infrastructure projects undertaken by Chinese firms).
There is growing Chinese investment in the Ethiopian economy, while imports of cheap consumer goods from China ($3.4 billion in 2015) greatly exceeding exports from Ethiopia to China ($380 million in 2015).
The Chinese appear to be interested in Ethiopia for political reasons (among African countries, its governance and developmental orientation is closest to that of China, and it hosts the African Union headquarters), and as a business partner.
Ethiopia’s focus on infrastructure has created numerous opportunities for Chinese construction firms. Ethiopia is also a significant market for Chinese exports that will expand as Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth continues.
For Ethiopia, Chinese finance provides critical support for the government’s legitimacy, as electricity, transport, and employment opportunities continue to expand, stimulating economic growth and helping promote exports to other countries.
Allegations against WHO – The Sum Up
- WHO supported the Chinese line on the pandemic for much of January and February.
- As of January 14, WHO was still denying human-to-human transmission of the virus even when the first Covid-19 case outside China was reported in Thailand a day earlier.
- ignored warnings from Taiwan – excluded from WHO under Chinese pressure – about the spread of the disease back on December 31.
- Chinese authorities knew about the pandemic and kept quiet for a critical six days till January 20. But when a WHO team visited China in February, it merely praised Chinese authorities for “taking bold steps to contain the contagion.”
The Take Away
Now, the point USA makes is, China helped Tedros become the WHO Chief and now Tedros is redeeming that help by siding with China. Also, it is alleged, China ensured Tedros’s cooperation using their “help” to Ethiopia as the “bargaining point”.
The take away is, Mr. Tedros doesn’t look detached & objective in his role, what with his history of being in many levels of politics. If USA is now determined to show Tedros and WHO their proper place, it should come as no surprise.
China gives only $40 million to the WHO while USA contributed $450 in 2019 (to the best of my knowledge – 150 mn from US government, 150 mn from Bill Gates Melinda Foundation and the rest from other philanthropists). If US government withdraws its funding now, the WHO will be in trouble. Small members put together will find it hard to fill this gap. Big shots like Germany & UK can fill in but who likes to make bad blood with Mr. Donald Trump? More than loss of money, it is loss of face for WHO.
May be Trump will be successful in cutting down China’s influence on WHO and more importantly, China (allegedly) using its business relationships to get control on international fora.
The odds against USA
Suspending funding reduces US voice in this international agency and allows countries like China to further increase their influence, the very thing Trump wants to avoid.