Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, attends a news conference on the coronavirus (COVID-2019) in Geneva, Switzerland. Image Credit: REUTERS

It’s not the easiest of times to head the World Health Organisation, the 194-member body that is tasked with improving public health around the globe. Every word that is uttered by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the health body’s director-general, these days is lapped up by billions of people around the world. It is then dissected by experts and professionals who debate whether a decision came too soon or too late, whether it is effective or just a panic reaction. But then, Tedros would be used to this by now. Early in his term he had to deal with the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo which eventually killed more than 2,000 people, but which is now close to being halted.

Approachable, friendly, charming and unassuming are some of the terms used to describe the WHO chief. In fact, in the midst of lockdowns and drastic measures taken by countries around the world, Tedros comes across as the calm face of an organisation in the spotlight, tackling questions on the coronavirus outbreak with composure and at the same time being firm with countries that are not doing enough. At a virtual press conference last week, the WHO top official criticised some nations for not doing enough to detect and contain the coronavirus that has infected more than 200,000 people around the world.

“We have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, which is the backbone of the response,” he said. “We have a simple message for all countries: Test, test, test. Test every suspected case. If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in contact with two days before they developed symptoms and test those people, too.”

Tedros believes in a hands-on approach to tackling problems and likes to go into the field to support WHO operations. He made 10 trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo during its 19-month-old Ebola epidemic. Then again, he flew into Beijing on January 28 just weeks after the new coronavirus emerged in China. By the time a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ was declared on January 30, a week had passed since the Wuhan lockdown. At a time when many around the world criticised the lockdown in Chinese cities to contain the virus and questioned whether such measures would bear fruit, Tedros praised the Chinese leadership’s commitment to fighting the disease through these measures.

At the global health body trying to get nations to work together in the fight against the virus, Tedros must balance a range of views — from deciding when to declare a pandemic to adopting aggressive containment measures — all the while keeping an eye on funding.

Tedros’ journey from Ethiopia to the WHO headquarters in Geneva had its beginnings in an incident that took place when he was very young. In an interview with Time magazine in November, Tedros spoke about the death of his four-year-old younger brother in the late 1960s. Later, he suspected that 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. The incident played a big role in motivating him to campaign for universal health coverage. The feeling intensified when he studied the UK’s national health system while working towards his Master’s in infectious disease immunology in London in the early 1990s. Shortly before his election as WHO chief, he told the World Health Assembly: “All roads should lead to universal health coverage. I will not rest till we have met this.”

Immediately after taking office on July 1, 2017, Tedros outlined five key priorities for the organisation: universal health coverage; health emergencies; women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health; health impacts of climate and environmental change; and a transformed WHO.

Tedros, who was born in 1965 in Asmara, which became Eritrea’s capital after independence from Ethiopia in 1991, is the first director-general of WHO from Africa. He is also the first chief not to be a medical doctor. He has a BA degree in biology at the University of Asmara in Eritrea. He then served at the Ministry of Health and in 1991 went to the UK and took a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Community Health from the University of Nottingham.

As the Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012, Tedros was widely praised for building a female-focused primary-care system that deployed 38,000 community-health workers throughout the country and easing its health care shortage. However, while campaigning to become the WHO’s director-general in 2017, Tedros was accused by opponents of covering up cholera outbreaks in his country, a charge that he has denied.

His term at the WHO has not been without controversy. Shortly after taking office he proposed Zimbabwe’s president at that time, Robert Mugabe, as a WHO goodwill ambassador, saying he had worked to make Zimbabwe “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies.”

The proposal was withdrawn after it was met with opposition and outrage from governments and human rights groups who pointed to the devastation in the country caused by Mugabe’s policies.

The success of Dr Tedros and the WHO in handling the coronavirus will take time to gauge. But for now, he will remain the face of an organisation that is at the forefront of tackling an invisible foe that has brought the world to its knees.