Tedros Re-elected to Second Five-Year Term After Spearheading Responses to Pandemic and Ukraine
Djibouti Health Minister and World Health Assembly President Dr Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sign a new contract for the second term

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been re-elected unopposed to spend another five years at the helm of the UN health agency, after receiving the World Health Assembly’s overwhelming endorsement as a health diplomat fluent in war and a pandemic.

Tedros, a former Ethiopian health minister and the first African to lead WHO, ran unopposed for a second term. He was re-elected in a secret ballot vote in accord with Assembly procedures that required at least two-thirds of its 194 member nations to endorse him. 

Although it initially appeared that all regions had endorsed his nomination, an indignant Ethiopia berated Botswana after it had delivered a message of support for Tedros on behalf of the Africa region. Neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea support Tedros as he has been outspoken about their blockage of Tigray, his home territory in Ethiopia. After Tedros’s re-election, Botswana then delivered a message of support on behalf of 45 African states – not 47.

Tedros began his first five-year term on July 1, 2017, and since 2020 he has been the public face of the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its delays and failures at vaccine equity. 

Immediately after the secret ballot vote, which lasted without explanation for a couple hours longer than had been scheduled, Tedros entered the Assembly hall to a rock star’s welcome, surrounded by delegates, well-wishers and photographers on his way to the podium. 

“The Health Assembly has just decided to appoint you,” Djibouti Health Minister and World Health Assembly President Dr Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh said. “In congratulating you, the Health Assembly fully acknowledges the challenges ahead of you.” Immediately afterward, Tedros took a brief oath of office and, also in front of the Assembly, signed a new contract that runs from 16 August, 2022 to 15 August, 2027.

“This is overwhelming. I’m really grateful and very humbled for your confidence and trust. It was not just today. During my nomination, all regions have nominated me,” he told the Assembly. “This is for the whole team.” Tedros laid out his previously established main priorities for his second term, ranging from primary care to pandemic preparedness to accountability. 

He became teary-eyed recalling being a seven-year-old boy living in Ethiopia in a poor family when his younger brother died of a disease later suspected to be measles, a preventable condition, and it could have just as easily been him. 

“So I hope peace will come,” he said. “Let peace and understanding be the antidote to war.”

Dr Tedros visited Kyiv in Ukraine earlier this month.

Vaccine equity

He has repeatedly called out wealthy nations for taking first dibs on most of the world’s vaccine supplies, leaving poorer nations years behind in getting their first shots. Amid the media focus on Ukraine, he has kept reminding people of the suffering in Afghanistan, Syria, Tigray, Yemen and other conflict zones. 

Throughout his first term, the 57-year-old Tedros projected empathy. In his opening remarks to the Assembly, he spoke of his visits to see first-hand the effects of conflict.

“In both Yemen and Ukraine, and in other countries I have visited in between during my first term, I saw the profound consequences of conflict for health systems and the people they serve. More even than pandemics, war shakes and shatters the foundations on which previously stable societies stood,” Tedros said.

“And it leaves psychological scars that can take years or decades to heal. For me, this is not hypothetical or abstract; it’s real, and it’s personal. I am a child of war,” he recalled. 

“The sound of gunfire and shells whistling through the air; the smell of smoke after they struck; tracer bullets in the night sky; the fear; the pain; the loss – these things have stayed with me throughout my life, because I was in the middle of war when I was very young.  … Not only a child of war, but following me throughout. But my story is not unique.”

He also has been harshly criticized for his agency’s dealings with China soon after COVID-19 was first discovered, and for early statements against mask-wearing. And, under his tenure, WHO has also been criticized for failing to hold its staff accountable for sexual abuse and other misconduct.

Trump challenges

Perhaps his stiffest challenge came from former US President Donald Trump, who withdrew the US from the WHO after numerous broadsides about the body’s capabilities – a decision that was swiftly reversed by President Joe Biden.

As the ninth director-general of WHO, Tedros is the only one since the agency’s creation in 1948 to not hold a medical degree. Instead, he has a doctorate in philosophy. 

In his second term, Tedros will continue to have to deal with the global response to the pandemic and new health threats such as monkeypox and hepatitis. He said he had been humbled by the Executive Board’s decision to nominate him for a second term, and, as he reflected on the past five years, realized they have been “bookended” by two visits to war zones.

 

“I made my first trip as Director-General to Yemen in July 2017, a country which was, and remains, mired in civil war. While I was there, I met a mother and her malnourished child who had travelled for hours to reach the health centre I was visiting in Sana’a,” he recalled. 

“Then two weeks ago, I was in Ukraine, visiting bombed hospitals and meeting health workers. I visited a reception center for refugees in Poland, where I met another mother, from the Mariupol area, who told me that when the shelling began, her young daughter was very scared. … I met people who have lost loved ones; lost their homes; lost their sense of security – and yet somehow, have not lost hope.”

 

 

Image Credits: WHO.

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