Introducing...Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Richard Swift on the ambiguous figure managing the WHO’s pandemic response. 

Illustration by Emma Peer
Illustration by Emma Peer

In the crosshairs of both pandemic and superpower management, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who was appointed head of the World Health Organization in 2017,is the bête noire of Donald Trump and the US Right. The 55-year-old Eritrean-born Ethiopian has also, by default, become the champion of those who believe in international co-operation and solidarity in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For Trump and Co., Tedros, the first African ever to head up the WHO, is simply the cat’s paw covering for the nefarious Chinese who, if they didn’t purposely start the virus, hid Covid-19’s earliest impacts, allowing it to spread. The Republicans pulled the plug on WHO funding, plunging it into crisis and endangering one of the few international supports for the beleaguered health systems of the Global South, particularly in Africa. Tedros has stood his ground, representing the WHO and multilateralism and refusing to ‘play politics’ while trying to maintain the clarity of a common fight against the virus.

But Tedros is an ambiguous figure. He has a solid record as a health administrator, leading campaigns to build up the public-health infrastructure of Ethiopia during his two terms as Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012. In that period infant mortality rates improved dramatically and malaria and HIV were ameliorated. On the other hand, Tedros was an insider in Meles Zenawi’s authoritarian Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regime during one of its harsher periods of repression.

Anyone showing an independent cast of mind, from judges to journalists, fell afoul of the police. Despite a reputation for being one of the softer, more approachable members of the Addis government, Tedros has continued to show a proclivity for being close to African ‘strongmen’. He was forced to back down when he tried in 2017 to appoint the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ for the WHO.

It is fair to criticize Tedros for an overly laudatory approach to the initial handling of the virus by China, which ignored the repressive censorship of dissident voices in the Wuhan health community when they tried to raise an early alarm. On the other hand, Tedros has also been uncritical of Trump’s incompetent handling of the virus in the US, which leads the world in both infections and deaths. But the price that Tedros and the WHO have been forced to pay is way out of balance.

Republican Washington has used the lack of criticism of the notoriously thin-skinned superpower to politicize the entire international pandemic response at a time when the world is in desperate need of a co-ordinated multilateral approach to Covid-19 from a well-resourced WHO.

For his part, Tedros, who has received racist abuse and death threats, has maintained a low-key consistent approach throughout the epidemic, encouraging national health efforts across the globe to diagnose, trace and contain the virus. His press conferences are watched across the time zones and the WHO remains, at this point, our best hope for coherent multilateral co-operation in the face of this grave global threat.