Robert Mugabe (File: AFP)
Tedros, who took over as the UN health agency’s director-general last July, sparked an outcry just a few months into his term when he appointed Zimbabwe’s authoritarian president as goodwill ambassador.
In October, Tedros asked the 93-year-old – who would be pushed from power a month later – to serve in the role to help tackle non-communicable diseases like heart attacks, strokes and asthma across Africa.
The decision triggered confusion and anger among key WHO member states.
Activists noted that Zimbabwe’s health care system, like many of its public services, all but collapsed under Mugabe’s regime.
In announcing the appointment, Tedros had hailed Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all”.
But after four days of international uproar, Tedros, who is the first African at the helm of the WHO, rescinded the appointment.
While Tedros was hailed for listening to his critics and backing down, the Mugabe storm raised questions about his leadership.
Asked about the crisis on Wednesday during his first official press conference since taking office, the WHO chief insisted that the appointment “was done in good faith”.
He said “some countries” had suggested the appointment would be useful for Africa, and pointed out that Mugabe had been one of a few leaders who attended a conference on non-communicable diseases, “and he came the whole way to Uruguay to attend… so he showed a strong commitment”.
Emotion and reason
He also stressed that the criticism of the appointment had exploded before the vetting process had begun and therefore before it had formally taken effect.
Mugabe “never even represented us even half an hour based on this appointment”, he said.
Tedros said there was a need to balance “emotion and reason” in the response, adding that the reaction appeared to be “more emotion”.
The WHO chief, who has served as Ethiopia’s minister of health an foreign affairs, pointed to the many challenges facing the world, insisting there is a need to “build bridges”, even with leaders deemed problematic.
“I prefer to work with people even if they have some problems on some issues, to work on areas that you can work with,” he said.
“I prefer to build bridges, even with the most difficult ones.”