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Infected with Politics: WHO and China Turn Public Health into Political Battleground

posted Dec 18, 2013, 6:34 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Dec 22, 2013, 5:08 PM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review 

On October 14th, the doctors at Delek Hospital, the main hospital for the hundred and fifty thousand Tibetan refugees in India, received some good news.  The Stop TB Partnership Secretariat of the World Health Organization informed them that the Kochon Prize selection committee had chosen the Tibetan TB Control Programme as one of this year’s recipients.  The winners had to be approved by the WHO’s director general, but this was a mere formality—the WHO had never refused its approval to the selection committee’s choice before.  There was no reason for anyone—not the prize committee members, not the staff at the Stop TB Partnership Secretariat, certainly not Dr. Tseten Sadutsang and Dr. Kunchok Dorjee —to doubt the approval would go through.  The doctors made travel arrangements to Paris for the award ceremony, and were even asked for photos of the hospital for the press release, and for their dietary restrictions regarding the annual Kochon Dinner.

Then came the bad news.  The WHO’s director general, Margaret Chan, had refused to approve the Tibetan TB Control Programme to receive the Kochon Prize, citing the hospital’s ties to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration.  The Chinese Ambassador to the UN had stormed into the Geneva office of the Stop TB Partnership and demanded that the prize be withdrawn from the Tibetan hospital.  Ms. Margaret Chan, celebrated as “China’s pride and the Chinese people’s pride”<FN1> by the Chinese Minister of Health upon her appointment to the top job, did the “right thing” by China.  Drs. Sadutsang and Dorjee were requested to cancel their flights.

Delek Hospital, Dharamsala, India

This is not surprising.  China has exerted great effort to undermine the work of His Holiness and the Tibetan cause on the world stage, and shown petulance and spite when it hasn’t gotten its way.  China refused to recognize all degrees awarded by the University of Calgary after the University honored the Dalai Lama with an honorary degree.  The fear of Chinese reprisal is so profound that Prime Minister David Cameron, who angered the Chinese a year ago for simply meeting with His Holiness, embarrassed himself and his office by “kowtowing” to China on his recent visit (this according to the Telegraph, which usually supports the conservative party).<FN2>

Margaret Chan insisted on her appointment, “First and foremost, now that I have been elected as director-general, I will no longer wear my nationality on my sleeve .”
<FN3>  Unfortunately, she has proven to be a good foot soldier for Beijing.  In 2010 she came back from Beijing’s ally North Korea, one of the most dictatorial regimes in the world, with glowing praise for Pyongyang’s health care system, a system that her own predecessor had described as near collapse just ten years before.<FN4>

But it is especially saddening, to see the WHO, an avowedly nonpolitical, humanitarian organization dedicated to universal health, let China lead it by the nose into making an unjust political decision.

For Tibetans, tuberculosis, like so much else, is a byproduct of exile.  In Tibet before 1959, TB was almost unknown.  TB first became a public health issue in the new Tibetan refugee settlements in India and Nepal, as a people from a cold, dry climate suddenly struggled to adjust to a hot, damp climate amid factors such as over-crowding, poor diet, migration, and lack of access to healthcare.  TB has dogged the settlements ever since.  Tibetans now have one of the highest TB incidence rates in the world, with over 95% of Tibetans in US and Canada having latent TB infection.

That’s why the work of the Tibetan TB Control Programme (TTCP) is so crucial and why the efforts of Dr. Tseten Sadutsang and Dr. Kunchok Dorjee, who directed the program, so deserve this recognition.  Since its inception at Delek Hospital in 2007, TTCP had seen tremendous success in treating and preventing TB; by 2012, working in a challenging refugee set-up on a limited budget, they achieved an overall treatment success rate of 93%.

By denying the prize, WHO bowed to politics and refused to recognize Delek Hospital for its extraordinary achievement.  But institutions and people who succumb to injustice can be persuaded to find their integrity once more.  In April 2013, the University of Sidney bowed to Chinese pressure and disinvited H.H. the Dalai Lama, and then bowed again to public pressure and re-invited His Holiness.  There is still a chance, however small, that the WHO will do the right thing.  People of conscience everywhere should call on Margaret Chan to honor her promise not to wear her nationality on her sleeve, and stand for the humanitarian principles of the organization she leads.

*A petition has been started on Change.org regarding this issue:


[1]  http://www.scmp.com/article/571279/giant-responsibility

[2]  http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/benedictbrogan/100248542/cronyism-and-kowtowing-in-china/

[3] http://www.scmp.com/article/571279/giant-responsibility

[4]  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704342604575221661454759110

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