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"Dr. Tedros" – The man at the helm of the WHO

April 21, 2020

Many experts praise Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for successfully transforming Ethiopia's health system, but he has long been a controversial figure. The COVID-19 pandemic is his biggest test yet.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a WHO press conference on COVID-19
Image: picture-alliance/Keystone/S. Di Nolfi

Anyone who has watched interviews with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus probably knows this story: That as a seven-year-old, he witnessed the death of his younger brother who succumbed to an illness that would have been curable in a country with a working health system. But in Ethiopia at the time, nothing of the sort existed.

Tedros regularly invokes this story when explaining his commitment to better health care around the world. When he ran for the post of Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017, he said that he refuses to accept that people have to die "just because they are poor", like his family used to be. The premature death of his brother, he said, is what motivates him to go to work every day.

Read more: Ethiopia celebrates first African leader of the World Health Organization

Health reform in Ethiopia

55-year-old Tedros has had a long career as a health expert. He studied infectious diseases in the UK during the 1990s and received a PhD in Public Health. Between 2005 and 2012, he served as Ethiopia's health minister and was given the task of reforming the country's health system.

In those seven years, Ethiopia built thousands of new health centers and hired tens of thousands of staff.

Their task was to support health care facilities in rural areas. And a health insurance system was introduced for the time in Ethiopian history. The number of medical schools in the country grew from three to 33, and that of doctors grew exponentially. The mortality rate from diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS fell sharply, in some cases, by up to 90 percent.

Tedros has also received praise for his commitment to improving maternal and child health care, both during tenure as Ethiopia's health minister and for international organizations. From 2012 to 2016, he was also Ethiopia's foreign minister under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Read more: World Health Organization blames Africa's health care inequality on lack of political will

Doctors in an operating room
A great deal of money went into Ethiopia's health system during Tedros' tenureImage: DW/S. Muche

Cholera coverup?

However, not all of his compatriots approve of Tedros' work in Ethiopian politics. They disapprove of his responses to epidemics during his time as health minister.

For instance, he has been accused of downplaying several outbreaks of cholera in Ethiopia between 2006 and 2011, delaying necessary counter-measures as a result. Ludger Schadomsky, head of the Amharic service at DW, closely followed Tedros during his time as health minister.

 "In our interviews with the Ethiopian health authorities at the time, we kept hearing about 'watery diarrhea ', even though there was clinical evidence that suggested it was cholera. "

A goup of protesters holding up pictures
Ethiopian exiles in Switzerland protested over the new WHO chief in 2017Image: Reuters/P. Albouy

When Tedros was named Director-General of the WHO in 2017, members of Ethiopia's two largest ethnic groups, Amhara and Oromo, which had been hit worst by the cholera outbreaks, protested in front of WHO's headquarters in Geneva. Tedros is a member of the Tigray ethnic minority, which only accounts for six percent of the Ethiopian population but has dominated Ethiopian politics for decades.

Human rights activist Kassahun Adefris told DW at the time that he was worried about Tedros becoming head of the WHO. "When he was Minister of Health, many people lost their lives because he covered up cholera epidemics, " Adefris said. "I think it is highly questionable to nominate someone for a position like this when they have made such grave mistakes. "Human Rights Watch also criticized Tedros during his campaign for WHO Director-General, because he was part of what they said was an authoritarian regime in Ethiopia that persecuted members of the opposition and journalists.

Reforming the WHO

As many observers noted at the time, Tedros was able to secure the leadership position at the WHO mainly thanks to the support of the 55 African UN member states. On social media, people from all over the continent expressed their joy that an African had become head of the UN agency for the first time.

Since then, experts have commended Tedros for his efforts to reform the WHO – in particular in improving the agency's ability to react to unfolding health crises quickly and comprehensively. This had been regarded as one of WHO's greatest shortcomings under the leadership of Tedros' predecessor Margaret Chan, in particular during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2013/14.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
After his election as WHO director-general, Tedros gained wide support in AfricaImage: Picture alliance/Zumapress/A. Grosclaude

Frosty relations with the USA

Still, critics have accused Tedros of having moved too slowly at the beginning of current coronavirus pandemic out of undue consideration for the Chinese government. This has led US President Donald Trump to freeze his country's payments to WHO temporarily. Even though this move has been widely criticized, it is beyond dispute that Tedros forged close contacts with the Chinese political leadership during his time as foreign minister and that Ethiopia remains an important strategic partner for China.

Tedros' conflict with Donald Trump, however, is not new. In 2017, before Tedros took office as WHO chief and long before the novel coronavirus made its first appearance in China, Donald Trump had already threatened to cut US financial contributions to the WHO. Tedros made Trump's threats part of his Director General campaign, arguing for a broadening of WHO's donor base. "When as many countries as possible pitch in, no matter how much, that would help a lot, "Tedros said.

This is an updated version of an older article.