Tedros, from ‘child of war’ to two-term WHO chief

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is all but guaranteed to secure a second term as WHO chief Tuesday, describes himself as a man of peace, shaped by a childhood in war.

The first African to head the World Health Organization and the sole candidate on the ballot for the next five-year term has become a familiar face as he spearheads the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But while Covid and other pandemic threats continue to feature prominently in his speeches, Tedros has in the run-up to Tuesday’s election increasingly focused on the heavy toll war and conflict like the ones raging in Ukraine are taking on global health.

“More even than pandemics, war shakes and shatters the foundations on which previously stable societies stood,” the 57-year-old former Ethiopian minister of health and foreign affairs said on the first day of WHO’s main annual assembly Sunday.

“And it leaves psychological scars that can take years or decades to heal,” he said, stressing that he had experienced this firsthand.

“I am a child of war,” he said, the emotion palpable in his voice.

‘Pain and loss’ –

“The sound of gunfire and shells whistling through the air; the smell of smoke after they struck; tracer bullets in the night sky… These things have stayed with me throughout my life, because I was in the middle of war when I was very young.”

Years later in 1998, when war returned to Ethiopia, “I felt the same fear as a parent myself .. and my children had to hide in a bunker to shelter from the bombardment.”

And, he said, “I feel the same pain and loss again now,” with the conflict that has been raging in his home region of Tigray since late 2020.

“Not only a child of war, but following me throughout,” said Tedros.

One thing was clear, he said: “where war goes, hunger and disease follow shortly behind.”

The global community cannot properly address the mountain of health emergencies and challenges we face, including the Covid-19 crisis and emerging pandemic threats, “in a divided world”.

Peace “is a prerequisite for health”.

That is a message he is eager to push as he prepares to take on a second term.

There will be a secret-ballot vote at the World Health Assembly on Tuesday, but with no other candidates running, Tedros’s win is basically a foregone conclusion. 

Turbulent –

His first term in office was turbulent, as he grappled not only with the global response to the pandemic but also a long line of other crises, including a sexual abuse scandal involving WHO staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While Tedros has faced his share of criticism, he has received broad backing.

African nations especially have been pleased at the attention paid to the continent and at his relentless campaign for poorer nations to receive a fair share of Covid vaccines.

Since President Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, Tedros has also enjoyed support in Washington. 

That marked a major about-face from the start of the pandemic, when Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump began pulling the United States out of the WHO, accusing it of being Beijing’s puppet and helping cover up the initial outbreak.

Ironically, the main source of opposition has come from Tedros’s own country.

Angered by his comments about the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray, Ethiopia’s government accused him of having “abused his office” to advance propaganda.

But those arguments appear to have little traction, and Tedros should have no difficulty securing in at least two thirds of the votes as needed Tuesday.

There will be no shortage of challenges in his second term, with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging and demands for dramatic reforms of the entire global health system to help avert similar threats going forward.

And new health menaces already loom, including hepatitis of mysterious origin that has made children in many countries ill, and swelling numbers of monkeypox cases far from Central and West Africa where the disease is normally concentrated.

by Agnès PEDRERO