Short report

Plague‚ plaque and other mysteries from the WHO

27 October 2017 - 13:54
By Tom Eaton
This Centers For Disease Control (CDC) file image shows the bubonic plague bacteria taken from a patient.
Image: AFP PHOTO/CDC This Centers For Disease Control (CDC) file image shows the bubonic plague bacteria taken from a patient.

According to alarming news reports‚ the plague is about to arrive in South Africa. Which is weird‚ because‚ as everyone knows‚ the plague got here a few years ago and has been spending its time between Saxonwold and the Union Buildings.

I am‚ of course‚ not making light of what is a very nasty disease. If the bubonic plague leaps from Madagascar into South Africa it will stretch our already overstretched health services even further and even though it has a very low mortality rate when treated early‚ this will be cold comfort to people with access to only rudimental healthcare.

But I must confess to being grimly amused by the source of the warnings: the people telling us about this impending crisis‚ and asking us to believe their warnings implicitly‚ are the same people who appointed Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador for global healthcare.

In case you missed it‚ last week the World Health Organisation decided that Mugabe was a perfect figurehead‚ perhaps because he is the living embodiment of how countries are brought together through the wonder of medicine: while his wife generates business for South African emergency rooms‚ he sells chunks of Zimbabwe to China then uses the cash to get treatment in Singapore.

The mastermind behind this decision was the WHO’s new boss‚ an Ethiopian politician and doctor by the name of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. His decision was pilloried‚ but to give Dr Tedros his due‚ he had given the world fair warning during his campaign for the position of director-general with a slogan – “Let’s prove the impossible is possible” – that revealed an unshakable commitment to denying reality.

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Because that’s the tricky thing about the impossible: it is‚ by definition‚ impossible. And so it proved with Mugabe’s new ambassadorship. A day or two later he was out and Tedros was left looking for a new brand ambassador‚ disconsolately flipping through his Rolodex of pariahs.

All of which has left me wondering: if the WHO tells us on a Monday that plague is coming to South Africa‚ what will it tell us on Tuesday? Someone misread the email and it’s just an outbreak of plaque? And what will it tell us next? That Ebola has been named as 2018’s must-have health cure?

If laughter really is the best medicine‚ then Dr Tedros might still heal millions of people. But until then‚ may the gods protect us from plagues and politicians.