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WHO Director Who Covered for China to Be Harvard Commencement Speaker

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom and Chinese president Xi Jinping / Getty Images
• January 28, 2021 11:36 am

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The leader of the World Health Organization, who aided China's efforts to avoid responsibility and lie about the emerging threat of the coronavirus pandemic, will be a Harvard commencement speaker this spring.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, will speak at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in May. The school announced the decision Tuesday in a statement, praising Tedros's "great insight and the political leadership" and calling him the right figure "to restore trust in the WHO at a critical moment in its history."

The announcement highlights the loss of trust the world's foremost scientific body has suffered during the greatest public-health crisis in a century. The WHO's legitimacy was crushed for allowing China to repeatedly hold sway over its official pronouncements.

A year ago, as reports came of a novel and deadly virus spreading rapidly among the population in Wuhan, China, the WHO followed Beijing's lead and falsely claimed that human-to-human transmission for the virus had not been confirmed. The claim hobbled the international community's response, and the WHO waited two weeks before eventually declaring the coronavirus a global public-health emergency. Even months after the WHO's declaration, one of the organization's top officials promoted a conspiracy theory to take the blame off China.

Later investigations showed that, despite Tedros's praise for China's transparency during the early days of the pandemic, the Communist country was not forthcoming about the danger of the coronavirus. The first reported case of the virus was noted on an American website by doctors working in Wuhan—not by Chinese officials, as the WHO initially claimed. Reports also confirmed that WHO officials vented privately over China's obfuscation of the virus's threat even as they publicly praised China's "openness to sharing information."

The WHO's deference to China prompted members of Congress to call for Tedros's resignation in April, and House Republicans issued a scathing report on the organization's response in September. The Trump administration formally withdrew from the WHO in July, cutting a good portion of its funding for the body in September, but President Joe Biden reversed these decisions and rejoined the organization during his first days in office.

Harvard's decision to host Tedros calls into question the ongoing relationships between foreign nations and American universities, dozens of which failed to disclose donations from China last year. The Department of Education investigated Yale and Harvard at the time for failing to disclose $375 million in funding from foreign nations, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. In 2014, Harvard's School of Public Health was renamed for T.H. Chan, a Chinese businessman and Harvard graduate whose sons gave the school $350 million, the largest donation Harvard has ever received.

The university also announced Thursday that Tedros will be awarded the 2021 Julius B. Richmond Award at the commencement ceremony, the highest honor given by the public-health school.