WHO's Chinagate: China helped Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus get elected, but is the politician really under their thumb?

WHO's Chinagate: China helped Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus get elected, but is the politician really under their thumb?
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Xi Jinping (Getty Images)

As the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic continues to engulf the world, one man remains one of the most discussed personalities on the planet and he is not the leader of any nation but of the World Health Organization (WHO). Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — the director-general of the UN health agency — was not a much-known face before the COVID-19 pandemic broke but now, he is a man of prominence. However, Dr Ghebreyesus is liked in some parts of the world but not so much at others. 

Dr Ghebreyesus took charge of the WHO in July 2017, the same year that Donald Trump took charge as the 45th president of the US. Now here is everything we know about him.

Dr Ghebreyesus has never practised as a physician and rather is a career politician. Born in present-day Eritrea (which was a part of Ethiopia at the time of his birth) in eastern Africa, the 55-year-old started working for Ethiopia’s Communist Derg junta. He went to the UK for studies and then went to serve in two top ministerial positions in Ethiopia — health (2005-12) and foreign affairs (2012-16) before taking charge of the WHO. 

Ghebreyesus is facing the biggest challenge of his stint as the WHO chief during the times of the pandemic. He has been slammed by the West for praising China’s response to the pandemic time and again and President Trump has gone on to call his body “China-centric” and even threatened to cut funds for the agency. Trump has also criticized the WHO chief of downplaying the plan to impose a travel ban from China when the pandemic started taking a serious shape. 

This is not the first time, however, that Ghebreyesus has been accused of being too friendly with the Chinese. Shortly after his emphatic win to become the chief of the WHO as the first African in 2017, it was alleged that China used its diplomats to lobby for him heavily. 

Records in the UN also showed that China’s contributions to both Ethiopia’s aid budget and the WHO have gone up significantly when Ghebreyesus was in top leadership posts.

The Times, UK, reported after Ghebreyesus’ election to become the WHO chief: “Chinese diplomats had campaigned hard for the Ethiopian, using Beijing’s financial clout and opaque aid budget to build support for him among developing countries.”

President Donald Trump and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Getty Images)

Ghebreyesus, who is married and has five children, made up his mind to work for public health after he saw as a kid his younger brother dying of infection, believed to be measles.
Having graduated from the University of Asmara in 1986 with a degree in biology, Ghebreyesus worked as a health official in the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s first president and a Marxist dictator and a former chairman of the Derg military junta that ruled the African country between 1977 and 1987. 

According to a report in the BBC, Ghebreyesus later joined the hardcore left Tigray People’s Liberation Front that played a major role in the toppling of Mariam in 1991. It later became a part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front — a left coalition that ruled Ethiopia till 2019 end. 

Ghebreyesus, however, had left Ethiopia for the UK by the time Mariam was overthrown and studied at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine where he earned a Master’s degree in Science in Immunology of Infectious Diseases in 1992. He continued his study in the UK and got a PhD in community health in 2000. 


Ghebreyesus has an impressive record as Ethiopia's top minister

Ghebreyesus then returned to Ethiopia and joined the country’s health ministry under prime ministers Meles Zenawai and Hailemariam Desalegn. From the position of regional health minister, he rose through the ranks to become the country’s health minister in 2005. After serving for over seven years during which Ghebreyesus earned accolades for his work that saw reduction in HIV/AIDS, measles and malaria and introduction of information technology in the health system, he was promoted to the rank of Ethiopia’s foreign minister.


There too, Ghebreyesus did a commendable job for helping to negotiate to boost the UN’s funding for Ethiopia. It was this time around that the country received millions of additional money, including from China. 

In 2015-16, China donatedin  $16 million to Ethiopia through spending commitments and cash, mainly to support its food and refugee programs. China committed another $44 million in 2011, just before Ghebreyesus entered the scene, and 2017, just before he left. If one sees the amount China gave outside this period dating back to 2000, it is only $345,000. 

Ghebreyesus then went on to become the director-general of the WHO after a landslide win but soon found his name embroiled in controversies like recommending former Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador which many saw was his way of paying back African nations for their support during elections. It was also believed to be a way to reward China, a long-time friend of the late dictator, for using its influence to see him become the WHO chief.


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