Tedros Accused of ‘Covering Up Epidemics’ Before Becoming W.H.O. Chief

In virus-hit America, World Health Organization in firing line
AFP/File Fabrice COFFRINI

World Health Organization (W.H.O.) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, currently under fire for repeatedly praising China’s abysmal response to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, faced controversy during his campaign to run the global agency for being part of a government that repeatedly denied cholera outbreaks, according to the New York Times.

The left-wing newspaper noted criticism of Tedros, who is not a medical doctor, in 2017 regarding his tenure as Ethiopia’s health minister and, later, foreign minister.

“A leading candidate to head the World Health Organization was accused this week of covering up three cholera epidemics in his home country, Ethiopia, when he was health minister — a charge that could seriously undermine his campaign to run the agency,” the Times observed in an article titled, “Candidate to Lead the W.H.O. Accused of Covering Up Epidemics.”

The accusation caused significant controversy, as it came from an adviser to one of Tedros’ rivals, the British medical doctor David Nabarro.

That adviser noted that Tedros was in charge of Ethiopia’s public health at a time in which it proclaimed itself to be entirely free of cholera for a decade – a bacterial disease that causes, among other symptoms, life-threatening diarrhea. Ethiopia managed to declare itself cholera-free by diagnosing patients with the disease as having “acute watery diarrhea,” even when tests proved that the bacteria causing diarrhea was that associated with cholera.

“In an interview, Dr. Tedros, who was Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012 and remains highly regarded for his accomplishments then, denied covering up cholera,” the New York Times reported. “Outbreaks occurring in 2006, 2009 and 2011, he said, were only ‘acute watery diarrhea’ in remote areas where laboratory testing ‘is difficult.’ That is what the Ethiopian government said then and is saying now about an outbreak that began in January.”

Tedros also defended himself by bizarrely comparing himself to former FBI director James Comey.

The Times noted that testing for cholera is not considered burdensome on most governments, according to unnamed W.H.O. officials.

Currently, the W.H.O. website describes cholera as “an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated.” It notes that cholera kills as many as 143,000 people a year despite being “an easily treatable disease.” The United Nations, the W.H.O.’s parent agency, admitted that it caused a cholera outbreak that killed 10,000 in Haiti, a country the disease is not native to, in 2010.

The timing of Tedros’ ascent to run the W.H.O. was a challenging one for the organization, given it had just endured global condemnation for its failure to handle the African Ebola outbreak that began in 2014.

“Despite warnings from its own experts, the World Health Organization took two months to declare the devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014 an emergency, during which time 1,000 people died in West Africa,” the Washington Post reported in 2017, noting that Tedros’ candidacy brought untoward attention to covering up disease outbreaks at a particularly volatile moment for the organization. The newspaper noted that later reports revealed the W.H.O. actively refused to acknowledge the outbreak to placate African leaders. Tedros was Ethiopia’s top diplomat at the time.

The Washington Post noted that Human Rights Watch had evidence at the time that the government Tedros represented was pressuring medical professionals not to identify cholera cases.

“We have interviewed a number of health professionals who have been pressured by government officials not to refer to cholera outbreaks as such, instead referring to outbreaks as ‘diarrhea’ or AWD,” Felix Horne, Human Rights Watch researcher for Ethiopia, told the newspaper. “This is emblematic of the control that government exerts over some of its health professionals — there is little space to question health policies or to challenge the government’s success narratives.”

The Post concluded that it was “not clear” if Tedros himself had ordered the cover-up.

Petitions circulating at the time against Tedros’ candidacy for the leadership of the W.H.O. noted that he represented Ethiopia abroad at a time in which the country had an “abysmal human rights record” and that he himself was a member of the politburo of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a violent Marxist organization. One petition received over 10,000 signatures.

In Ethiopia, local news outlets also published criticisms of his political career.

“Dr. Tedros is the executive member of the TPLF, a party constituting the core of the lofty ruling coalition, EPRDF, which ruled Ethiopia for over quarter a century with an iron fist,” a letter to the editor in the Addis Standard noted in 2016, and continued:

In addition … under Dr. Tedros’ tenure, Ethiopia experienced outbreaks of many rudimentary diseases, like the cholera outbreak in 2006, 2008 and 2011 among others. Even though the Ethiopian law stipulates cholera to be a ‘mandatory notifiable disease,’ Dr. Tedros left the legacy of keeping disease outbreaks ‘secrete.’ [sic] Today that legacy remains as cholera ravages the whole country including the capital Addis Abeba.

The campaigns failed and Tedros took over the World Health Organization in 2017, after what the Guardian described as “three tense rounds of voting”:

The stakes were particularly high in the wake of the scandal that engulfed the W.H.O. during the Ebola epidemic in west Africa. Investigations revealed that officials in the Africa regional office and also in the Geneva headquarters had not wanted to upset the governments of the three affected countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea by declaring an epidemic. There were calls from some for the abolition of the W.H.O. and the creation of a more effective body.

Under Tedros, the W.H.O. repeatedly praised the Communist Party of China for its handling of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic and spread misinformation from Beijing, such as telling the world there was “no clear evidence” that the virus was contagious in January.

The government of Taiwan – which, thanks to Chinese bullying, is not allowing to participate as a member country in the W.H.O. – has also stated that it has been attempting to share information about the virus with the agency since December and been largely “ignored.” Tedros responded to that accusation by claiming that Taiwan has launched a campaign of racial slurs against him, providing no evidence for this assertion.

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