WHO and the baf­fling ap­point­ment of Count Drac­ula

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - WORLD AF­FAIRS

IT WAS A BIT like ap­point­ing Count Drac­ula as the good­will am­bas­sador for the blood donor ser­vice.

Truth is stranger than fic­tion, be­cause fic­tion has to be plau­si­ble. Re­al­ity is un­der no such con­straint, and reg­u­larly pro­duces events that would never be cred­i­ble in a novel. Like the de­ci­sion last week to ap­point Zim­babwe’s Robert Mu­gabe as the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s good­will am­bas­sador.

The newly elected head of the WHO, Te­dros Ad­hanom Ghe­breye­sus, said he hoped that the Zim­bab­wean pres­i­dent would “in­flu­ence his peers in the re­gion” to de­vote more ef­fort to health care, but Mu­gabe doesn’t re­ally have much by way of peers.

Mu­gabe, in power since 1980, is ef­fec­tively pres­i­dent-for-life, whereas all the neigh­bour­ing coun­tries ex­cept An­gola are more or less func­tional democ­ra­cies. All of them, again ex­cept An­gola, pro­vide bet­ter health­care to their cit­i­zens than Zim­babwe. Not good, but sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter.

In Zim­babwe, heath care im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly in the first 20 years of Mu­gabe’s rule, as did the econ­omy in gen­eral. He built clin­ics, hos­pi­tals and schools, and Zim­bab­weans be­came one of the health­i­est, best ed­u­cated, and most pros­per­ous pop­u­la­tions in Africa. But then it all went wrong.

Af­ter a ref­er­en­dum in 2000 re­jected a new con­sti­tu­tion de­signed to strengthen Mu­gabe’s grip on power, he be­came in­creas­ingly para­noid and au­thor­i­tar­ian. The sole pur­pose of govern­ment be­came hang­ing on to power at any cost (to oth­ers), so favoured cronies in the rul­ing party and the mil­i­tary were al­lowed to loot the econ­omy – which duly col­lapsed.

By now, in fact, there is hardly any Zim­bab­wean econ­omy left be­yond sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture. Un­em­ploy­ment has soared to 75 per cent or higher, and the schools and hos­pi­tals have fallen apart. Adult life ex­pectancy has plunged from 61 years to 45, and staterun hos­pi­tals and clin­ics fre­quently run out of even ba­sic medicines like painkillers and an­tibi­otics.

Mu­gabe has presided over this catas­tro­phe for 17 years now, in­sist­ing all the while that all is well. At the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum on Africa in Dur­ban last May, he claimed that “Zim­babwe is one of the most highly de­vel­oped coun­tries in Africa.” He is plan­ning to run for re-elec­tion as pres­i­dent next year at the age of 94, and no­body dares to defy him.

He will win, of course, af­ter the usual number of opposition ac­tivists have been beaten up, jailed or mur­dered – if he lasts that long, but he is be­gin­ning to show se­ri­ous signs of wear. In fact, Mu­gabe has made three “med­i­cal vis­its” to Sin­ga­pore for treat­ment this year.

Why Sin­ga­pore? The pres­i­den­tial spokesper­son, Ge­orge Charamba, says that it’s a prob­lem with Mu­gabe’s eyes, which would help­fully ex­plain away the fact that he fre­quently ap­pears to fall asleep at pub­lic meet­ings. (He’s just rest­ing his eyes, re­ally.) He needs a for­eign spe­cial­ist for that, but for ev­ery­thing else, Charamba claims, Mu­gabe goes to a Zim­bab­wean doc­tor – who is, he as­sures ev­ery­body, a “very, very, very black physi­cian.”

There are very good Zim­bab­wean doc­tors, of course, but most of them, frus­trated at the lack of med­i­cal sup­plies, have long since left the coun­try for greener pas­tures. And it does seem un­likely that it’s an eye prob­lem that has caused Mu­gabe to make three “med­i­cal vis­its” to Sin­ga­pore this year. It’s prob­a­bly some­thing more se­ri­ous, and Mu­gabe just doesn’t trust his own health ser­vice to deal with it.

How did the new head of WHO hit upon the idea of mak­ing this man, of all peo­ple, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s “good­will am­bas­sador” for Africa? He and his ad­vis­ers must have dis­cussed it in var­i­ous meet­ings for weeks be­fore an­nounc­ing it. Did no­body ever bother to point out that it would be a pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter? “Spe­cial am­bas­sadors” don’t have to do very much, but their choice does shine a light on the judge­ment and in­tegrity of those who choose them.

In the event, the pub­lic out­cry about the choice of

Mu­gabe was so in­stant and wide­spread that within three days his ap­point­ment was can­celled. Mu­gabe had been the head of the African union when the or­ga­ni­za­tion en­dorsed Te­dros as the sole African can­di­date for the WHO job, and no doubt Te­dros felt some obli­ga­tion to re­turn the favour, but the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fi­nan­cial sup­port comes from else­where.

So it’s just pol­i­tics as usual. The WHO’s rep­u­ta­tion will even­tu­ally re­cover, but health care in Zim­babwe won’t as long as Mu­gabe is alive. And the world will con­tinue to ro­tate in an east­erly di­rec­tion.

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