In the face of international condemnation, the new head of the World Health Organization signaled Saturday that he is rethinking the appointment of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador for the global health agency.
“I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter. When asked to confirm he was speaking about the Mugabe appointment, he affirmed it.
Tedros, as he is known, announced the controversial appointment on Wednesday in a speech at a global conference on noncommunicable diseases in Montevideo, Uruguay. But news of the appointment was slow to make the rounds.
By Friday evening, though, the global health community and human rights organizations were up in arms. Twitter was roiling with indignation and disbelief.
“Mugabe corruption decimates Zimbabwe health care (he travels abroad for care) but @WHO’s Tedros names him ambassador,” wrote Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust tweeted, “Robert Mugabe fails to represent the values WHO should stand for and those that Dr. Tedros has stood for …”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he thought the news “was a bad April Fool’s joke.”
“It is absolutely unacceptable, absolutely unconceivable that this individual would have a role as a goodwill ambassador,” Trudeau said Saturday.
Goodwill ambassadors, according to the WHO’s website, “are well-known personalities” who work with the UN agency to “raise awareness of important health problems and solutions.” The ambassadors include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also for noncommunicable diseases.
Mugabe, who is 93 and reportedly in frail health, has led Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980. His government has repressed protesters and political opponents, has been accused of rigging elections, and has been implicated in widespread human-rights violations.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has struggled economically and has been seen as a pariah on the international stage. The country is also a major tobacco producer and exporter — something that critics cited as further evidenced that Mugabe was a poor choice to advocate for solutions to conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
In an email, Dr. Tom Frieden, president of the global health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, and former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the appointment “indefensible,” particularly in light of Mugabe’s tobacco advocacy.
News that Tedros, the first African to lead the WHO, might soon rescind the appointment was applauded in some quarters.
“Thank you @DrTedros. Crucial period for @WHO. Reversing Mugabe decision would demonstrate strong leadership, move against business as usual,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, tweeted.
But in an interview, Jha acknowledged that Tedros — and by extension, the WHO — could pay a political price for the misstep.
David Fidler, a professor of global health law at Indiana University agreed.
If “Tedros retracts the decision, he loses whatever political support in Africa he hoped to gain and he destroys whatever statement of independence as the first African (WHO leader) he must have been trying to make,” Fidler told STAT by email. “To his global health critics, he admits he made a terrible, terrible decision on one of the most important issues facing WHO, suggesting his leadership is very suspect.”