The Ethiopian at Heart of Coronavirus Fight

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the first African to lead the World Health Organization. (Getty Images)

BBC

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: The Ethiopian at the Heart of the Coronavirus Fight

What a challenge to be the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the time of the coronavirus.

The entire planet hanging on your every word, addressing daily press conferences at the headquarters in Geneva to detail an ever increasing number of cases in an ever increasing number of countries.

This is the lot of Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African head of the WHO, who took office two-and-a-half years ago promising to reform the organisation, and to tackle the illnesses that kill millions each year: malaria, measles, childhood pneumonia, or HIV/Aids.

And yet, while the WHO is undoubtedly working hard on those illnesses, Dr Tedros’ time in office has been dominated first by Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now by Covid-19.

Both have been declared Public Health Emergencies of International Concern, or PHEICs.

‘Charming and unassuming’

That means they require 24-hour monitoring, deployment of medical staff, equipment and medicines, daily discussions with affected countries and countries who might be affected, and of course, a steady stream of reliable information for an anxious world desperate for immediate answers.

“Charming” and “unassuming” are some of the words those who know him use to describe the 55-year-old.

At his first press conference as WHO director general, the Geneva-based journalists were somewhat bemused by his manner.

He strolled in smiling, sat down and chatted in a very relaxed way, his voice sometimes so quiet it was difficult to hear him. That was a very big change from his more formal predecessor, Margaret Chan.

And yet behind that quiet manner there must lie a very determined man.

Before becoming head of the WHO he climbed through the ranks of Ethiopia’s government, becoming health minister and then foreign minister. He could not have risen that far by being self-effacing.

Brother died of suspected measles

Dr Tedros was born in 1965 in Asmara, which became Eritrea’s capital after independence from Ethiopia in 1991, and grew up in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

One formative, and now motivating experience, was the death of a younger brother, who was around four years old at the time, he told Time magazine in November. Later, as a student, Dr Tedros came to suspect it was measles that killed him.

“I didn’t accept it; I don’t accept it even now,” he was quoted as saying, adding that it was unfair that a child should die from a preventable disease just because he was born in the wrong place.

“All roads should lead to universal health coverage. I will not rest until we have met this,” he told the World Health Assembly shortly before his election as WHO chief.

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