The director general of the World Health Organization appeared Saturday to be walking back his decision to make President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe a WHO goodwill health ambassador, amid international outcry about Mugabe being an appropriate choice for the role.
“I’m listening. I hear your concerns,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a social media message. “Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible.”
When asked if his Twitter message specifically referred to the Mugabe decision, Tedros said yes, although no further statement was immediately forthcoming.
Tedros made the announcement about 92-year-old Mugabe’s appointment on Wednesday while attending a global health conference. It was the same conference that Mahmoud Fikri, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, planned to attend before dying suddenly while en route; Tedros has also announced that Jaouad Mahjour will serve as acting regional director in Fikri’s position.
The Mugabe announcement, in which Tedros spoke in glowing terms of the president’s leadership commitment to universal health care, was met with a collective recoil. Response to the decision reflected shock and dismay across the spectrum, from medical experts at the highest international levels to community activists in Zimbabwe who were equally incredulous.
“The appointment is so surreal that finding a rationale seems like a fool’s errand,” said David Fidler, a professor of international health law in the United States who emailed reporter Helen Branswell of STAT about Mugabe.“But there is a message, and it is a harsh one: DG Tedros is challenging conventional global health approaches and attitudes about Africa.”