At an international conference on October 18th Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, was appointed as the Goodwill Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases in Africa by the World Health Organisation (WHO). For those who don’t know, a goodwill ambassador is a person who advocates for a specific cause due to their notability. Tedros Adhanom, WHO’s new General Director, who gave Mugabe the role stated that giving him the position could help to influence his peers when it came to dealing with health issues such as heart attacks and strokes. The president was elected because of the praise he received for his country having ‘universal health coverage… at the centre of its policies’.
“The life expectancy in Zimbabwe has now dropped to lower than it was in the 1980s – coming 180th out of 193 countries.”
However, this decision lead to global outrage as several world leaders and health organisations were incensed by the decision. Mugabe is incredibly well known for having many issues during his 37-year rule in Zimbabwe. He has had sanctions imposed on him by the US for his abuse of human rights, and his honorary knighthood stripped by the UK for violently repressing the political opposition. He has also been accused, most frequently by Amnesty International, of having a corrupt government, devastating Zimbabwe’s economy, and illegally detaining and torturing journalists. It has now been pointed out that the health system in Zimbabwe has begun collapsing under Mugabe’s regime.
At a glance, the health system appears well designed, but an assessment carried out by WHO themselves showed chronic underfunding leading to bad outcomes. The evidence of this being that the life expectancy in Zimbabwe has now dropped to lower than it was in the 1980s – coming 180th out of 193 countries. Medical workers also frequently go unpaid and close to half of all the deaths resulted from childbirth are in fact avoidable. It was then noted that Mugabe himself travels abroad when in need of medical treatment, having flown to Singapore three times since January in order to receive medical care.
In light of this, his appointment lead to public outcry, especially from charities such as Human Rights Watch who stated that ‘given Mugabe’s appalling human rights record, calling him a goodwill ambassador of anything embarrasses WHO and Dr Tedros’. As a result of all the criticism, WHO rescinded the appointment of the president of Zimbabwe on Sunday 22nd October, just four days after his initial naming.
In response to this, on October 24th, George Charamba,Mugabe’s spokesperson, came forward and said that ‘WHO cannot take back what it never gave in the first place, and as far as he is concerned, all this hullabaloo over a non-appointment is a non-event’ despite it originally seeming that Mugabe had accepted the role. He then went on to state that Mugabe ‘playing goodwill ambassador’ would have been a contradiction due to Zimbabwe’s involvement with tobacco growing and tobacco selling which brings in, on average, $800 million a year.