100 days of COVID-19: I faced death threats, racial slurs, says WHO DG

In a never before press conference, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus chides the US, refutes allegations of favouring China  

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Thursday 09 April 2020
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo: WHO Twitter Handle

World Health Organization (WHO)’s Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus alleged he had received death threats and racial insults during a volatile press conference on April 8, 2020, on the eve of 100 days of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Ghebreyesus’ calm demeanour even during tough times had surprised many. But on April 8, he seemed to have made up his mind to not only answer every single criticism he and the WHO had faced, but also make some startling revelations about himself.

In doing so, he did away with the old practice of WHO not naming any member state even if pointed and specific questions were posed to them. The United States and its president Donald Trump were at centre of his attack though he did not name the president while being unequivocally critical about him. 

“I give a damn to death threats because I have to save people’s lives. I have no time to waste as 60,000 have already lost their lives,” he said without naming who had threatened him and on what account. 

However, he did name Taiwan on a different account.

“Three months back, an attack came from Taiwan. I will be honest today. Its foreign ministry knows the campaign. It did not dissociate. On the other hand, it also started criticising me,” Ghebreyesus said.

Taiwan has proven to be WHO’s proverbial ‘Achilles Heel’ during this pandemic. The WHO has faced sharp criticism for not including Taiwan as one of its member states under pressure from China.

So much so that COVID-19 positive cases of Taiwan were not even considered separately and clubbed with China. A couple of weeks ago, WHO assistant director general, Bruce Aylward, left an interview midway as a question on Taiwan was posed to him. 

But Ghebreyesus did not stop here. “I have been attacked from various sides because I am black; I am a Negro. But I am a proud black man and a proud Negro,” the director general, who is an Ethiopian, said quite a couple of times in the press meet at Geneva. 

However, he was belligerent about the fact that the black African community had been attacked by a group of French scientists a few days ago. Africa could be a testing ground for vaccines, they had said.

“I do not care about attacks on myself. Who is Tedros? Tedros is only a dot in the universe. I do not mind targets aimed at me. If I could tolerate for three months, I could tolerate for 30 years or 300 years…but what is unacceptable is an attack on our community. People are crossing the line. It is enough and we would not tolerate this,” he said. 

He minced no words in admonishing US president Donald Trump without taking his name. Trump had alleged that the WHO was being too China-centric and been very inappropriate in handling the pandemic on April 7. He had threatened to withdraw US funding to WHO. 

“Quarantine politics on COVID-19,” Ghebreyesus said forcefully, adding, any cracks in national or global unity would make enough room for the virus to exploit countries further.

“We have seen many body bags. If you want to be exploited more and see more body bags, you may do it…Unity of your country will be very important to defeat the dangerous virus. Without unity, we assure you even countries who have a better system will be in trouble,” he said.  

Ghebreyesus said it was imperative upon every politician to work across political and ideological lines during such a crisis. “I was a politician. I know it is difficult. But it is the most correct thing to do,” Ghebreyesus, who is Ethiopia’s former health minister, said. 

What if the US, which is the biggest funder, actually stops contributing? “Resources will not be an issue if global solidarity is maintained,” Ghebreyesus said.

But he added rather cryptically: “By the way I will like to thank the US for its generous support so far. Funding has always been a bipartisan issue in the US and I believe it would remain so. Hope the US would continue contributing.” 

He also tried to rebut criticism of being too favourable towards China from the very beginning of the outbreak. He said he had appointed somebody who hailed from the Cook Islands as chief nursing officer.

“People started ridiculing me as to why I picked somebody from a country that had a population of 10-11,000 for the entire world. I was saddened by their arrogance. I picked her up because of her talent,” Ghebreyesus said.

He drew this parallel to suggest that neither was that a favour for the Cook Islands then nor had he extended any undue favour to China this time that has a population of 1.4 billion. “The Cook Islands influenced us using what? China influenced us using what? We belong to all member states equally. We do not differentiate,” he said. 

He called upon the leadership of China and the US to do a deep dive into the past to understand how warring nations had united during times of adversary. The smallpox eradication programme was launched in 1967.

The erstwhile Soviet Union and the US, despite being at odds in the Cold War at that time, decided to come together because the disease was killing two million people annually and affecting another 50 million.

“For God’s sake, we have lost thousands by now. Is that not enough? It is more than enough,” he said. If China and the US continue to harp on their differences, it would spell doom not only for themselves but also the entire world, Ghebreyesus warned, naming the two countries specifically. 

He did not spare the media and said it should refrain from adding fuel to the fire. “Spread the message of unity and solidarity,” he said in a pep-advice. 

It was quite possible that the WHO might have also committed some mistakes in this long period, Ghebreyesus said. To asses them, the UN health body would do an after-action review.

“Only time will tell which players did well and which did not. But at the moment, we have to fight this virus like hell as humanity’s common enemy,” he said. 

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