By Campaign Agent Matthew Waterfield
On 20 October, it was announced that Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, was to become a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, justified the appointment by saying that Mr Mugabe could “influence his peers in the region”, before going on to claim that Zimbabwe puts “universal health coverage” at the “centre of its policies”. However, as news of this spread, the WHO was met with a ferocious backlash.
Critics of the decision opposed it for multiple reasons. Firstly, Mugabe’s tenure as president has seen the collapse of the entire Zimbabwean healthcare system, with the 93-year-old presiding over possibly the only country on Earth to have a lower average life expectancy than it did in the 1980s. Because of the shambolic state of their country’s economy, Zimbabwean medical staff often have to work without pay, whilst diseases such as cancer and diabetes often go untreated, due to the cost of the medicines used to combat them.
Secondly, Mugabe is well renowned as one of the world’s greatest contemporary dictators. He has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, usually with an iron fist, being responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of his own people. This was not the type of person you’d want representing a UN agency that aims to reduce deaths, many argued in retaliation.
Thirdly, many pointed out that Mugabe himself doesn’t make use of the Zimbabwean health care system. As he suffers from an array of health issues, he flies out to Singapore multiple times a year to have these treated, rather than be treated in his own country, where the healthcare system is in an awful condition.
The condemnation stemmed from a diverse group – including governments, such as the UK, to world leaders, such as Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. NGOs also announced their disapproval, in particular Human Rights Watch, and there was even a backlash from within Zimbabwe, with the main opposition party calling the decision an “insult”.
Faced with this barrage of opposition, the WHO soon announced that they were ‘reconsidering’ their decision. Shortly after, Adhanom inevitably announced that he’d decided to rescind Mugabe’s appointment; the Zimbabwean government responded by claiming Mugabe had never intended to accept the role in the first place.
Sources and Further Reading
Image: Al Jazeera English @ Flickr