The 56-year-old has faced criticism from US and China over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — who has become the face of the agency’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic — has a reason to smile.
On Wednesday, he received the backing of Germany in his attempt to head the world agency for a second term. “We invite partner countries to join us nominating DG (Director General) Tedros,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn was quoted as saying.
However, the path to securing a second term may not be as simple for the 56-year-old former Ethiopian health minister and minister of foreign affairs.
Who is Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus?
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus served as Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012 during which he led a comprehensive reform of the country’s health system, built on the foundation of universal health coverage and provision of services to all people, even in the most remote areas.
He also served as the country’s foreing minister from 2012 to 2016, elevating health as a political issue nationally, regionally and globally. In this role, he led efforts to negotiate the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, in which 193 countries committed to the financing necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
In May 2017, he was elected WHO Director-General for a five-year term becoming the first African to ever take the helm of the UN health agency.
COVID-19 and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros’ term as director-general has been engulfed in major health emergencies.
A year after he took office, Ebola exploded in what is effectively a war zone in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the outbreak, the second largest on record, took two years to contain.
Before it could be fully extinguished, the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, he has led near-daily briefings, outlining guidance and best practices and issuing calls for greater cooperation and solidarity.
He’s been a mainstay face of the COVID-19 pandemic response over the past year.
He has called on wealthier countries to do more to respond to vaccine inequities around the world. COVAX, the WHO-led initiative to distribute vaccines, is experiencing massive shortages and delays.
As Thomas Bollyky, director of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a report in The World: “Ghebreyesus’ legacy and future come down to his handling of the pandemic.”
As director-general, Ghebreyesus has tried to guide the world through the biggest health crisis of the century. He has been made to manage a massive global health operation, which includes disease control, logistics and guidance, budgeting and steering the world through choppy political waters.
Criticism of WHO chief
However, if one would believe that his second term is a sure shot, think again. His position as WHO chief is vulnerable and he has been criticised for his handling owing to which some believe that Tedros wouldn’t be getting another five years in office.
His handling of the pandemic has managed to anger both China and the United States at different times.
In 2020, then President Donald Trump pulled US out of the World Health Organization and said funding would be redirected elsewhere.
The US president had accused the body of mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic when it emerged in China, and of failing to make “greatly needed reforms”.
In his criticism, Trump had said that WHO failed to adequately obtain, vet and share information in a timely and transparent fashion”. Reports said that Trump attacked the WHO saying it had “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier”.
However, current US president Joe Biden immediately rescinded the notice when he took office and ties between the US and Tedros-led WHO are on the mend.
Tedros angered China by insisting on a thorough investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though China is not a major player in the functioning of the WHO, riling the government could prompt it to campaign against him.
Tedros also, unexpectedly, has been shunned by his native Ethiopia due to friction over the Tigray conflict.
In May 2021, the WHO chief had called the conflict in Tigray “horrific” and had said the destruction of health services was adding further strain to the crisis.
He later had to deny accusations made by Ethiopia’s army chief that he was taking sides. “There have been reports suggesting I am taking sides in this situation. This is not true,” he wrote on Twitter.
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) November 19, 2020
“I want to say that I am on only one side and that is the side of peace,” he added.
According to Reuters, a senior African diplomat based in Geneva said he did not expect any country in the African group to nominate Tedros as he did not enjoy Ethiopia’s backing.
Electing a WHO chief
Despite these controversy, some observers believe Tedros should be able to secure a second term.
“He’s not invulnerable by any means, but I think he’s in a pretty strong position, even with the problems he’s encountered in the first three-and-a-half-years,” said Stephen Morrison, director of the global health policy center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The race for the person who will lead the WHO from 2022 to 2027 began in April when the world body sent out a letter informing member states that they could nominate candidates for the next term. The nomination period ends on 23 September; candidates will be announced at the end of October. If there are multiple candidates, the WHO’s executive board — a panel of members from 34 member countries representing the various WHO regions — will interview and nominate up to three final candidates.
Member states will elect the director-general from that roster at the 2022 World Health Assembly in May, the annual meeting of the WHO’s governing council.
It is left to be seen if Tedros is able to secure a second term, but as Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law said to Statnews: “It would be exceedingly unwise in my view to change DG in the midst of a historic pandemic, which will still likely be raging. I also think Tedros has earned another term.”
With inputs from agencies