Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hopes to expand healthcare access for the world’s poor. But his tenure as former Ethiopian health minister has not been without controversy.
Health representatives of 186 countries gathered in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday to elect former Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, usually known as Dr. Tedros, as the new director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Tedros had the powerful backing of the 55-nation African Union and was ultimately chosen over British medical doctor and long-serving UN envoy David Nabarro and Pakistani cardiologist Sania Nishtar for the top spot at the global health agency. Margaret Chan, the current head of WHO, will step down in June.
Tedros won 133 votes to Nabarro’s 50 in the third round of voting. His fellow countrymen could be seen hugging and exchanging high-fives shortly after he made it past the second round, in which Nishtar was eliminated.
The enthusiasm was echoed over social media, with many Ethiopians and other Africans praising the decision and expressing their optimism for future changes in the world health sector.
Tedros said on Wednesday he hoped US Congress would fund global health initiatives, despite the budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration. But he said the WHO would look for new donors.
“I am a strong believer that there should be an exit strategy, that means a gradual exit that avoids any shocks,” he said. “When there are finance cuts like this, the most affected are the poor.”
“We need to expand the donor base … If we have as many countries as possible who can contribute, it could be any amount, I think that will help,” Tedros added.
As director-general of WHO, Tedros will be responsible for deciding which medical issues will take priority and when crises like disease outbreaks will be treated as global emergencies.
He inherits the position at a time in which WHO has been criticized fot its allegedly slow response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
A humble background
Tedros was born in Ethiopia and grew up poor. He has advanced degrees in community health and the immunology of infectious diseases from the UK, is married and has five children.
While running as a candidate for the WHO position, he recounted a story from his childhood in which his brother died from a common, preventable disease. He said the experience of growing up poor taught him to refuse “to accept that people should die because they’re poor.”
Positive track record
Before becoming minister of foreign affairs, Tedros, 52, had a long track record in public health. He served as Ethiopia’s health minister until 2012, greatly expanding the healthcare system in one of the most impoverished countries on earth.
During his seven year tenure, Tedros created 3,500 health centers and deployed 38,000 community-based workers that extended healthcare to remote areas as well. The number of medical schools increased more than tenfold from three to 33, leading to an exponential rise in the number of trained doctors throughout the East African country in the Horn of Africa. This had played a key role in reducing mortality rates for diseases that are the scourge of the African continent: HIV infections went down by 90%, and mortality from malaria and tuberculosis plummeted by 75% and 64% respectively.
Tedros also played a key role in advocating women and children’s health as co-chair of the multi-constituency Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH), a worldwide alliance of 700 organizations that addresses sexual and reproductive issues with the support of WHO.
Spokesman for the Ethiopian Community in Switzerland, Shimeles Bezabih, told DW that Tedros’ appointment is a positive step in light of his previous work.
“While Dr. Tedros Adhanom served as minister for health, he led Ethiopia to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ahead of any country by decreasing child and maternal mortality rates,” Bezabih said.
“Furthermore, when he served his country as minister of foreign affairs, he was a humble and well-mannered guy who promoted Ethiopia’s relation to a better place with the rest of the world.”
Critics concerned over past “cover-ups”
Tedros has not been without his controversies however. As the former health minister of Ethiopia, he was accused of covering up cholera outbreaks in the country.
Activist Kassahun Adefris from the Ethiopian Human Rights and Democracy Task Force in Switzerland told DW he was concerned about Tedros’ appointment because of his dubious record.
“When he was minister of health, many lost their lives because he covered up cholera epidemics in the country. In my perspective, nominating a person who commits these kinds of mistakes for this post is questionable.”
During Tedros’ campaign to become WHO director-general, he was also criticized by Human Rights Watch for working for an authoritarian state accused of using repressive tactics on political opponents and journalists. Many protesters who also opposed Tedros are fellow Ethiopians who belong to the country’s dominant Amhara and Oromo tribes. Tedros is from the Tigray minority, which governs Ethiopia’s ruling political coalition commonly referred to as EHADIG.