As director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom finds himself at the center of the greatest international crisis since World War II. His rise to prominence was facilitated not only by his medical acumen but also by his close affiliation with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Tedros, as he is commonly known, was born to parents who were originally from the Tigray region of Ethiopia in March 1965, in Asmara, Eritrea, then the former Italian colonial center and a backwater of the Ethiopian Empire. Decades later it would become the capital of an independent Eritrea.
As a child, he was surrounded by the death and suffering caused by malaria. He lost a young sibling to what may have been a preventable disease, perhaps measles. As such, it is not surprising that Tedros was drawn to the study of preventable diseases early on. He completed college in 1986 while Ethiopia was still a communist country. There was little choice but to join the Ministry of Health, as Ethiopia was a one-party Marxist state. Only the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam half a decade later would end Africa’s worst communist regime, which killed more than one million people.
In 2000, he earned his doctorate in community health from the University of Nottingham with a thesis looking at the effects of dams on the transmission of malaria in the Tigray region. He would soon have the opportunity to put his ideas into practice both regarding health measures to limit the spread of malaria and dams.
He returned from abroad to an Ethiopia that was rapidly becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and the second-largest population in Africa.
Long-time Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi appointed him minister of health in 2005. Like Zenawi and the other members of the TPLF, Tedros’s rise was aided by the fact he was ethnically Tigranyan. The ethnic group comprises just a few million members. The Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups in Ethiopia far outnumber them. Yet, following the fall of Mariam Mengistu and until the rise of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front dominated Ethiopian politics largely based on their ability to present a united front in political squabbles.
A Successful Tenure as Minister of Health
As health minister, Tedros won acclaim for building 5,000 health centers across Ethiopia with many of them located in rural areas. His administration further deployed 30,000 health-workers to Ethiopia’s rural regions. Thus, his role in the health administration provided significant reforms. These efforts generated a 30 percent decrease in child deaths/infant mortality between 2005 and 2011, as well as a 50 percent decrease in death from malaria between 2005 and 2007. Most significantly, he reduced the spread of HIV infection by 90 percent from 2002 to 2012.
The minister of health position in a ruling government is often a dead-end position in many countries, yet Tedros was promoted to minister of foreign affairs in 2012. He would hold the post until 2016.
Ethiopia’s Top Diplomat
As foreign minister, he earned the support of many African governments for his role in promoting the United Nation’s Agenda 2063 in the African Union. Most importantly, he played an important role in galvanizing global efforts to counter the Ebola crisis. Domestically, however, he became associated with efforts to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Tedros played a role in selling the project at home and with downriver governments in Egypt and Sudan, with whom he negotiated.
Tedros first came to the attention of China while foreign minister, and Ethiopia’s government rapidly built close ties with China during his tenure. China worked on building close relationships to Tedros and even invited him to the country on the eve of his election to head the WHO. It’s important to remember that during this period Tedros was also feted in the West. He held some fellowships and leadership positions with the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, and even was described by Wired Magazine as one of the fifty people who will change the world in 2012.
First African at the Helm
In 2017, Tedros was selected to head the World Health Organization. Upon his appointment, Tedros had said that he listened to voices from around the world and heard that “countries want WHO to be more efficient and accountable, and [that] the next director general needed to focus his or her efforts on the most vulnerable of the world.” In an attempt to focus attention on the most vulnerable, Tedros turned to Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe presided over a catastrophic health system. Surprisingly, he appointed Mugabe as WHO Goodwill Ambassador. The choice seemed odd. While Tedros had overseen a dramatic decline in HIV cases in his country, Mugabe cared little for fighting the virus and largely allowed it to emerge unchecked in Zimbabwe as he spent millions fighting wars in neighboring countries. Tedros was criticized and he did eventually back down from this appointment. But it did show that he still had the instincts of a foreign minister and not the WHO’s top bureaucrat, something that would carry over to the next major crisis.
In the Eye of the Storm
The COVID-19 crisis has thrust Tedros to the center of the world stage like no other African leader since the late Nelson Mandela. He has received praise for his handling of the crisis from the African Union. Yet, he was harangued in a Twitter-letter by US President Donald Trump for mishandling the crisis. The WHO was slow to label the virus a global pandemic and did not thoroughly investigate the seriousness of the outbreak early on, President Trump alleged. To what extent such foibles were the fault of the WHO a large bureaucracy and the leadership of Tedros is unclear. What is clear is that an organization is only as strong and unified as are its members, and with the escalating row between the US and China, the WHO stands to lose in terms of transparency and accuracy of the information it diffuses. On March 20th, Tedros tweeted the following “For the first time, #China has reported no domestic #COVID19 cases yesterday. This is an amazing achievement, which gives us all reassurance that the #coronavirus can be beaten.” Looking back, this was wildly optimistic, but Tedros was not towing the China line; he was communicating the statement of a member state. The WHO has no mechanism to double-check the data member states share with it.
Going forward, Tedros has the opportunity to rise above the politics and coordinate the setup of a new infrastructure to build a robust international health system. Tedros the politician must ignore his instincts. Tedros the diplomat must now turn his attention to the United States, the country whose immense resources can be a boon for the WHO in this crisis and beyond.
Kaleb Zewdineh is an Ethiopian-Canadian who formerly worked for the African Union.