Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has named President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as a goodwill ambassador in a new push to fight non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Tedros announced the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday, according to a transcript of his remarks published by the WHO.
“I am honoured to be joined by President Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all,” he said. “Today I am also honoured to announce that President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa to influence his peers in his region to prioritize NCDs.”
The World Health Organization immediately came under criticism for the appointment, including from the United States and United Kingdom, which are major funders of the UN agency. Britain said Mugabe’s appointment was “surprising and disappointing. The United States said it was “disappointed,” adding that the move contradicts the United Nations’ ideals of respect for human rights and demonstrates that reform is needed at the UN.
Rights groups and Zimbabwean opposition criticized the appointment on the grounds that Mugabe has done a poor job running Zimbabwe’s own health system. “The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state, it is an insult,” said Zimbabwe’s main MDC opposition party spokesman Obert Gutu in remarks to AFP news agency.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, likewise criticized the move saying, “When you go to Zimbabwean hospitals, they lack the most basic necessities.”
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based group UN Watch described the choice by WHO, a United Nations agency as “sickening.” He noted that Mugabe himself had travelled to Singapore for medical treatment three times this year rather than in his homeland.
However, Mugabe was only one of several world leaders to be praised by Tedros in his speech. He also called out King of Morocco Mohammed VI and President of Uruguay Dr. Tabaré Vázquez for their achievements in improving healthcare. His purpose evidently was to garner broad political support for a High-Level Commission on NCDs that he had announced the previous week.
This rationale was stressed by WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier in an email with Reuters news agency: “Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health.”
Tedros himself in his speech in Uruguay stressed that political support is needed in the fight against non-communicable diseases. “Friends, the NCD epidemic is playing out like a horror story before our very eyes. Hundreds of millions of children are obese and overweight,” he said.
“Most of those children would not be obese if they could eat a healthy diet and be physically active.
Unless we act now, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and lung diseases lie ahead. And it is shocking to see the growing toll that NCDs are taking on the people who can least afford healthcare.”
The newly elected Ethiopian director-general added, “And in more and more countries of the world, the double burden of malnutrition – where overweight and underweight children live in the very same communities – is providing a stark example of the challenges we all here need to address, that being the provision of and access to healthy, nutritious food.”
“But this can only happen if there is committed and enlightened leadership from the highest levels of government.”
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