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 Thursday to appoint Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as the World Health Organization’s goodwill ambassador.
The newly elected head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he hoped 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 neighboring countries except Angola are more or less functional democracies. All of them, again except Angola, provide better health care to their citizens than Zimbabwe. Not good but significantly better.
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 favored 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 percent or higher, and the schools and hospitals have fallen apart. Adult life expectancy has plunged from 61 years to 45, and state-run 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 “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 has 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 judgment 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 canceled. 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 favor, 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.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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