Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a little-known figure before the coronavirus pandemic, rose to prominence as Director-General of the World Health Organisation which is spearheading global responses to the virus.
Dr Tedros – who has never practised as a medical doctor – is a career politician who was born in what is now Eritrea, began work under the Communist Derg junta, came to study in the UK, then rose to the top of Ethiopia’s government first as Health Minister and then Foreign Minister before being elected to lead the WHO in 2017.
He faced heavy criticism over his handling of the pandemic, especially for praise he heaped on China‘s communist party for its response – hailing the regime’s ‘commitment to transparency’ and saying the speed with which it detected the virus was ‘beyond words’.
Indeed, it is not the first time that Dr Tedros has been accused of cosying up to China.
Shortly after his election victory in 2017, it was alleged that Chinese diplomats had been heavily involved in lobbying for him.
UN records also show that Chinese contributions to both Ethiopia’s aid budget and the WHO have substantially increased during times when he was in top leadership positions.
Shortly after his election to the WHO, a report in The Times said: ‘Chinese diplomats had campaigned hard for the Ethiopian, using Beijing’s financial clout and opaque aid budget to build support for him among developing countries.’
Dr Tedros (left) became the first African head of the WHO and the first non-medical doctor to hold the role when he was elected in 2017, amid allegations of heavy lobbying by China (pictured, Dr Tedros in Beijing shortly after his election)
Dr Tedros – who is married and has five children – was born in 1965 in Asmara, which was part of Ethiopia at the time but is now in Eritrea.
As a child he saw his younger brother die to an infection, which he believes was measles, which he later said spurred his determination to work on health and health policy.
He graduated from university in Ethiopia in 1986 with a degree in biology and went to work as a health official in the regime of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, while the country was ruled by the Derg military junta.
According to the BBC, Dr Tedros then joined the hard-left TPLF – which started life as a Communist party and played a major role in overthrowing Mariam in 1991. It later became part of the EPRDF, a coalition of left-wing parties that ruled Ethiopia until last year.
Around the same time as Mariam’s ouster, Dr Tedros left Ethiopia and came to the UK where he studied at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, graduating with Masters of Science in Immunology of Infectious Diseases in 1992.
He then went on to study at the University of Nottingham, where he received a PhD in community health in 2000.
After this, he returned to Ethiopia where he joined the health ministry and rose through the ranks from regional health minister all the way to national Minister for Heath – a position he took up in 2005.
Before ascending to the top ranks of the WHO, Dr Tedros studied in the UK and served Ethiopia’s ruling left-wing coalition as health minister and then as foreign minister (pictured in the role in 2015)
During his tenure, which lasted until 2012, he was widely praised for opening thousands of health centres, employing tens of thousands of medics, bringing down rates of HIV/AIDS, measles and malaria, as well as bringing information technology and the internet into the heath system.
In November 2012 he was promoted to Foreign Minister, and was widely hailed for helping to negotiate a boost in UN funding for Ethiopia, including as part of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.
Indeed, UN funding records show that around this time the country received millions in additional funding – including from China, which had previously given little or nothing to support the country.
In 2015 and 2016 China gave some $16million to Ethiopia in spending commitments and cash contributions, largely in support of food or refugee programmes.
In 2011, just before Dr Tedros took up the role, and in 2017, just after he left, China handed over another $44million in commitments and contributions.
Its total contributions outside of this period, dating back to the year 2000, were just $345,000.
In 2017, Dr Tedros left the Ethiopian government and entered the running for Director-General of the WHO as the tenure of Dr Margaret Chan, a Canadian-Chinese physician, was coming to an end.
The election was the first to take place under a system of polling all UN member states as part of a secret ballot. Previously, leaders were chosen by a closed-door vote of an executive committee.
Eventually the field was boiled down to two candidates – Dr Tedros and Briton Dr David Nabarro, a life-long physician who had helped lead UN responses to previous outbreaks including bird flu, the cholera outbreak in Haiti, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Dr Tedros won the ballot by a reported 133 votes to 50, becoming the first African leader of the WHO and the first non-medic to hold the role. His victory came in part thanks to 50 out of 54 African states voting for him.
However, he quickly mired himself in controversy by recommending African dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador, amid allegations he trying to repay favours granted during the election.
There were reports that the move was also intended to reward China, a long-time supporter of Mugabe, for using its influence to have him elected.
The Times added: ‘China has praised the authoritarian development model of Ethiopia’s regime, which rules under emergency powers and has put down pro-democracy protests.’
During the 2017 election itself, several groups within Ethiopia opposed Dr Tedros’s appointment due to his links with the TPLF and allegations that they stifled journalists and repressed minorities.
Dr Tedros was also accused of covering up three separate cholera outbreaks in 2006, 2008 and 2011 by mis-reporting it as ‘watery diarrhea’, allegations he dismissed as a ‘smear campaign’ by his British rival.
Following his election to the WHO, Dr Tedros vowed to reform the organisation by placing an emphasis on universal healthcare at its centre while also increasing funding.
Further UN funding records show that, during his tenure, assessed contributions to the WHO by China have also risen significantly – from roughly $23million in 2016 to $38million in 2019.
China has also committed to a further $57million in funding in 2020, though has yet to pay the balance.
Meanwhile funding from other major world economies – including the US, Russia, Japan and Germany – has remained largely flat or even fallen over the same period.
Assessed contributions make up only around a quarter of the WHO’s budget, the rest of which comes from donations.
Recent criticism of the WHO and Dr Tedros specifically stems from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and in particular its perceived closeness to authorities in Beijing.
By Chris Pleasance