GENEVA — World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Thursday denounced the top U.S. diplomat’s allegations that he is subservient to the Chinese government’s demands and has helped to cover up Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The allegations leveled against him by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are “untrue and unacceptable,” said Tedros, a politician and public health expert who headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries and took over the United Nations health agency in 2017.
On a trip to the United Kingdom and Denmark earlier this week, Pompeo reportedly told a closed-door event in London that Tedros has been “bought” by the Chinese government. Pompeo’s boss, U.S. President Donald Trump, gave notice to the United Nations on July 7 that he was starting a formal withdrawal process from WHO based on political grievances against China over the pandemic.
Standing beside U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in London on Tuesday, Pompeo blasted China and WHO’s independence without directly mentioning Tedros. Pompeo met with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Raab for talks on “global priorities” including COVID-19 recovery plans, China’s new national security law for Hong Kong and a U.S.-U.K. trade deal, according to the U.S. State Department.
“We think that the entire world needs to work together to ensure that every country, including China, behaves in the international system in ways that are appropriate and consistent with the international order,” Pompeo told a joint press conference with Raab. “You can’t go make claims for maritime regions that you have no lawful claim to. You can’t threaten countries and bully them in the Himalayas. You can’t engage in cover-ups and co-opt international institutions like the World Health Organization.”
In late January, Tedros praised China’s response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, first detected late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Behind the scenes, however, WHO offiicals were growing frustrated with the nation’s delays in releasing critical information, including the genome of the virus that Chinese researchers mapped but did not share with WHO until a week later.
And despite investigative reports from within China questioning how quickly it reported the outbreak and the accuracy of its death toll, Tedros told reporters he came away from a meeting in Beijing with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, “very impressed and encouraged by the president’s detailed knowledge of the outbreak” and believed China had “helped prevent the spread of coronavirus” abroad.
Then in April, just weeks after he also praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Tedros pushed back against White House attempts at scapegoating and threats of budget cuts. Trump repeatedly blamed China and WHO for his administration’s failure to slow a pandemic in which the United States, with 4 percent of the world’s population, now accounts for a quarter of its 15 million cases and 630,000 deaths.
Trump has repeatedly cast WHO as kowtowing to the Chinese after the first COVID-19 cases were detected. WHO has walked a tightrope, trying to placate China and the United States.
“China has total control over the World Health Organization, despite only paying US$40 million per year compared to what the United States has been paying, which is approximately US$450 million a year,” Trump told a May 29 White House news conference.
British coronavirus victims died because the head of the World Health Organisation was ‘bought’ by China, U.S Secretary of State tells MPs https://t.co/VSgQniee3D
— Daily Mail U.K. (@DailyMailUK) July 22, 2020
After Pompeo’s latest remarks, in which he reportedly cited U.S. intelligence suggesting China’s government owned Tedros, the U.N. health agency’s chief told reporters he rejected the allegations.
“And the comments are untrue and unacceptable, and without any foundation for that matter,” he said. “If there is one thing that really matters to us and which should matter to the entire international community, it’s saving lives. And WHO will not be distracted by these comments and we don’t want the international community also to be distracted.”
Tedros said one of the greatest threats to the world is the politicization of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 does not respect borders, ideologies or political parties,” said Tedros. “I have said it many times: COVID politics should be quarantined, and I’m appealing again to all nations to work together. Politics and partisanship have made things worse.”
Two other WHO officials who regularly brief journalists on COVID-19 also defended the U.N. agency.
“We are proud, proud to be WHO and we will remain so. And we will serve the vulnerable people of the world regardless of what is said about us,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead for WHO’s coronavirus response, said she has had the “honor and privilege” of joining Tedros and Ryan at countless news briefings. “I feel the need to say something as an American, as a proud WHO employee,” she added. “I have never been more proud to be WHO.”