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WHO Fight With the U.S. Highlights Why Africa is So Important to China

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a daily press briefing on COVID-19 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

African leaders are rallying to the defense of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus following Tuesday’s broadside attack from U.S. President Donald Trump against the health body for failing to move fast enough to contain the COVID-19 outbreak when it first emerged in China last year.

Both WHO and Ghebreyesus have been the targets of steady criticism by U.S. conservatives for being too close to China in their view, even suggesting that the organization “kowtows” to Beijing.

But those views are not widely shared outside of the United States, particularly in Africa, where countries with weak public health infrastructure depend on WHO guidance, funding, and technical expertise to implement critical health programs, especially now amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

One after another, some of Africa’s highest-profile political leaders took to Twitter to declare their robust support for WHO and its embattled leader.

  • AFRICAN UNION: “Surprised to learn of a campaign by the US govt against @WHO’s global leadership. The @_AfricanUnion fully supports @WHO and @DrTedros.” (@AUC_MoussaFaki)
  • SOUTH AFRICA: “The most potent weapon against  #COVID19 and its devastating health, social & economic impact is international cooperation & solidarity, which is why the exceptional leadership displayed daily by @WHO & @DrTedros during an unprecedented global public health crisis is incalculable” (@CyrilRamaphosa)
  • NIGERIA: “The Government of Nigeria fully supports @WHO and its Director-General  @DrTedros. We are grateful for the leadership and guidance the WHO has provided as we respond to this pandemic.” (NGRPresident)
  • NAMIBIA: ” @WHO, under the stewardship of @DrTedros, has shown itself to be a true flag-bearer of multilateralism when global solidarity has become critical.” (@hagegeingob)
  • RWANDA:  “Is it Dr.Tedros,WHO,China…under attack or all of them together? Let’s focus on the fight against this pandemic,whoever sh’d be held acc’ntable will come later and done properly. Save us too much politics Africa does not need it. Who does?” (@PaulKagame)

Why China is Probably Very Pleased by This Reaction

African leaders responding collectively to align themselves against the United States highlights why Africa will remain vitally important to Beijing’s foreign policy, regardless of what happens economically.

China is increasingly turning to large blocks of African votes, and the voices of African leaders, to support its positions in multilateral organizations, or more specifically, against U.S. positions it finds objectionable. Recent examples include 17 African countries supporting China’s position on Xinjiang against U.S.-led criticism, African support for China’s nominee to lead the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the complete disregard of American objections to Africa’s use of Huawei telecommunications equipment.

It’s clear from the immediate response by African leaders on Twitter that any continued U.S. critique of WHO or its leader will not be well received and will likely undermine Washington’s standing in the global fight to contain COVID-19.

China, for its part, doesn’t even have to respond if prominent presidents and prime ministers on the continent do all the talking.

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