Tedros, a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister, has faced growing criticism of his handling of the covid-19 outbreak since January, when the U.N. body repeatedly backed positions espoused by the Chinese government and praised Beijing’s epidemic response.
In the weeks since, Chinese dissidents, anti-Beijing activists and people in Hong Kong and Taiwan have flooded social media with posts that accuse Tedros of lying on behalf of China’s government, as well as cartoons that show the director general blinded by the Chinese Communist Party — a stew of intensely politicized content that at times has veered into abuse.
“Taiwan, the Foreign Ministry also, they know the campaign. They didn’t disassociate themselves. They even started criticizing me in the middle of all that insult and slur, but I didn’t care,” Tedros said Wednesday in an uncharacteristic outburst.
The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said Thursday it “in no way encouraged” any personal attacks and condemned “any form of discrimination.”
But it also said the WHO has faced legitimate criticism and anger over its conduct in the past three months.
“There have been questions about its handling of the situation,” the ministry said. “In democratic societies, people should be able to express these opinions freely.”
Taiwanese officials last month accused the WHO of ignoring warnings submitted by the island as early as December about a potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus — information that was never publicized to the WHO’s member nations because the island is locked out of the organization under a policy that does not recognize Taiwanese statehood.
China considers the self-governed island of 23 million people to be its territory and does not permit countries, international organizations and multinational corporations to formally recognize Taiwan if they wish to enjoy diplomatic or commercial ties with mainland China.
Still, in a Facebook post on Thursday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen invited Tedros to visit.
“For years, we have been excluded from international organizations, and we know better than anyone else what it feels like to be discriminated against and isolated,” Tsai wrote. “I want to take this opportunity to invite Director General Tedros to visit Taiwan and experience for himself how committed the Taiwanese people are to engaging with and contributing to the world, even in the face of discrimination and isolation.”
The recriminations between Taiwan, a U.S. ally, and the WHO are playing out against the backdrop of U.S.-China tensions.
American officials have homed in on the question of China’s influence at the WHO. The issue took center stage this week after President Trump threatened to “put a very powerful hold” on U.S. contributions to the U.N. agency’s $6 billion biennial budget because he believes the agency is too “China-centric.”
In a radio interview this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the WHO “hasn’t lived up to its billing,” but he dismissed the suggestion that Washington should seek a change in the organization’s leadership.
Beyond the Trump administration, some international experts, including current WHO advisers, have publicly questioned whether the agency hewed too closely to the Chinese government’s positions on the coronavirus, particularly as the outbreak came into view during the crucial month of January.
In the middle of that month, the WHO reiterated the Chinese position that there was a low possibility of human-to-human transmission and discouraged countries from banning visitors from China — positions it later overturned. The organization also echoed the Chinese statement that the outbreak was “preventable and controllable.”
Tedros declared covid-19 a global pandemic on March 12 — two days after Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Wuhan to declare a domestic victory over the coronavirus in the city where the outbreak emerged.
Weeks later, the WHO came under further criticism when Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist who led a WHO inspection team to China in February, declined to answer a Hong Kong reporter’s question about how Taiwan performed during the pandemic — and at one point hung up the video interview.
Despite its lack of WHO membership, Taiwan has carried out some of the world’s most effective responses to the pandemic, recording fewer than 400 confirmed cases and deaths in the single digits after acting early on to ban travel from China and ramp up testing and the production of protective equipment.