Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is in a position no African has quite been before. His office as the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has technically been surpassed in the past by two different Africans, but neither of those two had to deal with the Earth-changing phenomenon on the magnitude of COVID-19.
The last time the WHO declared a pandemic, 2009, Ghebreyesus was Ethiopia’s Minister of Health. The problem at the time was the H1N1 swine flu.
That pandemic did not effectively paralyze world markets. Ghebreyesus’ Ethiopia or any other country for that matter, was not bullied by the threat of the virus into closing down borders, offices and places of worship.
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The last time a coronavirus struck, which was SARS, the harm was felt in barely 30 countries. And SARS amounted to anything but a pandemic.
This coronavirus is different. Speaking after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a global public health emergency, Ghebreyesus said Africa should “prepare for the worst”.
But that advice was as good for any other nation on the face of the planet. The United States, the world’s largest economy, has had to pass the biggest government relief and stimulus package in its entire history.
Spain, a country that has registered deaths in the tens of thousands, was forced to nationalize all private health facilities.
In Italy, Iran, China, France, Japan, South Korea and the UK, there have been official declarations that characterize the anti-coronavirus plans as “wartime efforts”.
This strain of the coronavirus has been known to the WHO for less than four months. But the economic and social implications of the current health crises are comparable to, if not outweigh, the longest-ongoing global pandemic, HIV/AIDS.
That is exactly why this moment makes Ghebreyesus an African in a unique seat. And he will be counting on personal and professional experiences to navigate these waters.
Ghebreyesus was born in 1965 in Asmara, the city that is now Eritrea’s capital. This was before Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia.
As a young boy, Ghebreyesus recalls the experience of seeing his four-year-old brother die. Later, Ghebreyesus came to believe that his brother had died of measles, a treatable disease.
He told Time magazine in an interview, “I didn’t accept it [death of his brother]; I don’t accept it even now.”
His outlook on public health has been shaped by his brother’s death. For Ghebreyesus, a preventable disease should not kill anyone regardless of where they are born.
By training, Ghebreyesus is a microbiologist but his PhD is in community health. He is the first non-physician to head the WHO.
But he is also a very politically opinionated man in spite of his unassuming demeanor. He was an active member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that fought out Mengistu Haile Mariam from power in Ethiopia in 1991.
In 2005, he became the Health Minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Ghebreyesus held that role until 2012, winning credit for the largest expansion of healthcare in Ethiopian history.
In 2012, Ghebreyesus served in another cabinet, this time as the Foreign Minister. By his own reckoning, this was Ghebreyesus anointment into the workings of intergovernmental relations.
Looking back after he was elected WHO director-general in 2017. All of Ghebreyesus’ experiences have seemed necessary to his position. He is obviously not just the world’s most powerful health advocate, but also a de facto political ambassador and negotiator with governments.
But in recent times, some have had reason to question his political judgements. Like the time Ghebreyesus said he wanted Robert Mugabe appointed as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador. Or when he kept praising China’s efforts in containing the coronavirus earlier this year.
By and large, the man has skipped his hurdles, albeit not unscathed. What matters more now is what he does with what is before him now while the whole world has a front row seat in the theater of a horrific contagion.