July 9, 2020 / 5:41 PM / a month ago

Veteran female leaders to head WHO COVID-19 review amid anti-globalism barbs

ZURICH (Reuters) - Avowed multilateralists Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Helen Clark will lead a World Health Organization (WHO) panel scrutinising the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic just as international institutions are under fire.

FILE PHOTO: Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks during a Reuters interview in Kigali, Rwanda April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jean Bizimana/File Photo

The work by Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s former president and Clark, New Zealand’s ex-prime minister, will come into the harsh spotlight trained on the WHO by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has accused the agency of being in China’s pocket while letting the pandemic spiral out of control.

Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Africa’s first democratically elected female president, and Clark, who sought the top United Nations job in 2016, acknowledged that the study of how the world tackled this crisis, to prepare for the next one, will not be easy.

“Our world is challenged by what is happening, challenged in ways that none of us could have forecast,” Clark, 70, said on Thursday.

Johnson Sirleaf, 81, a Liberian-born, U.S.-educated economist, served 12 years as her West African country’s leader, a period that included the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed thousands.

She won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for promoting the peaceful struggle for women’s rights as she oversaw Liberia’s emergence from civil war. She has deep WHO ties, having been named a goodwill ambassador last year.

In a March BBC editorial, Johnson Sirleaf called for solidarity against COVID-19 while criticising early lapses by states.

“Time was wasted. Information was hidden, minimised, and manipulated. Trust was broken,” she wrote.

Clark, New Zealand’s leader from 1999 to 2008, lost out four years ago to Antonio Guterres to lead the UN. She previously led the UN Development Programme and serves on a WHO panel on childhood obesity.

In May, in an online forum, she criticised global leadership for failing to muster the “unity of purpose” that overcame challenges like eradicating smallpox.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called them “strong-minded, independent leaders”, aiming to underscore their freedom in assessing his agency’s and governments’ COVID-19 responses.

Reporting by John Miller, additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Michael Shields and Alexandra Hudson

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