GENEVA – The World Health Organization’s director-general has faced many challenges during the coronavirus pandemic: racial slurs, death threats, social media caricatures — he was once depicted as a ventriloquist’s dummy in the hands of Chinese President Xi Jinping — and U.S. funding cuts.
Through it all, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has endeavored to rise above the troubles with a focus on one main task: Building international “solidarity” against an outbreak whose confirmed death toll is nearly 300,000 and that quelled economic activity in countries rich and poor. Many health policy experts have praised his handling of the outbreak overall, despite criticism of the U.N. health agency by the Trump administration.
Next week, Tedros’ track record and background will come under intensified scrutiny as WHO holds its biggest annual event — the World Health Assembly — in a “virtual” and abbreviated version that focuses on COVID-19.
Critics and some analysts cite his background as a government minister in Ethiopia, with its history of authoritarian regimes. Not long after taking office in 2017, Tedros appointed Zimbabwe’s then president, Robert Mugabe, who often traveled abroad to receive health care, as a WHO “goodwill ambassador,” only to revoke the appointment after a wave of outrage erupted.
Most recently, Trump has faulted WHO for being too accepting and praising of China’s handling of the early outbreak, wedging Tedros personally in the tense political standoff between the U.S. and China. He has shied away from criticizing the two powerful U.N. members, and has praised both President Donald Trump and Xi — even while leaving hints seemingly directed at Beijing and Washington.
“Don’t use this virus as an opportunity to fight against each other or score political points. It’s dangerous,” he said recently, appealing to the world. “It’s the political problem that may fuel further this pandemic.”
Tedros, 55, knows about the punishing sides to both politics and pandemics: A malaria expert with a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Nottingham in Britain, he served as health minister and foreign minister in Ethiopia before his election in 2017 in one of WHO’s most competitive races.
He’s the first WHO chief from Africa, and the first who doesn’t have a medical degree — seen as a hole in his resume by some critics.