Alan Jones thinks Tony Abbott would do a better job as WHO boss. So who is Dr Tedros?

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Source: AAP

Alan Jones has questioned the legitimacy of the World Health Organisation’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He says former prime minister Tony Abbott would make a better candidate for the role. So who is WHO’s top boss Dr Tedros?

As discussions around the WHO's advice on the early containment of the new coronavirus intensify, conservative commentator Alan Jones believes the person to steer the world out of this stormy isolated haze is former prime minister Tony Abbott.

In a column with the Daily Telegraph, Jones was adamant Abbott should be leading the World Health Organisation instead of current Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"Which brings us to the source of the contemporary problem — a World Health Organisation run by an Ethiopian Marxist and stooge for the Chinese Communist Party, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus," Jones wrote.

Abbott's time as federal health minister, and speech from over a decade ago at a pandemic flu conference in Ottawa was reason enough for Jones to put his name forward.

Jones wrote, "Why wouldn't Australia put forward Tony Abbott as a nomination to head the World Health Organisation?"

Abbott has an impressive resume; he's led his country, is a Rhodes scholar, and has been a part of the upper echelons of politics. But does that mean he is better placed to run this world health body?

Who is Dr Tedros?

Dr Tedros was born in Eritrea's capital Asmara. He cites the death of his brother at around 3 years old, presumably from measles, as the motivation for him pursuing a career in public health.

After gaining a degree in biology in Ethiopia, he became a malariologist, and currently holds a PhD in Community Health from the University of Nottingham, and a Master of Science in Immunology of Infectious Diseases from the University of London. He was also Chair of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Board.

He does have a political background: Dr Tedros joined the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which played a role in the 1991 toppling of Ethiopia's Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Between 2005 to 2012 he served as Ethiopia's Minister of Health. He spearheaded a transformation of the country's health system that improved access to health care for millions of people, and maternal and child mortality rates dropped by 60% during his time. However, his ministry was accused of discouraging journalists from reporting about suspected cholera cases in the country - an allegation he has long denied.

WHO's past Director-Generals have included people from Canada, China, Sweden, Norway, Japan, South Korea, Denmark and Brazil. When Dr Tedros was appointed as the new Director-General in 2017, he became the first person from Africa to lead the peak health organisation.

Criticism of Dr Tedros' as WHO boss

Since taking over as WHO's Director-General, Dr Tedros' first few years has seen him deal with the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now the global pandemic that is COVID-19.

His time in office hasn't been without criticism. In 2017, he received backlash for proposing the then president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador, saying at the time Mugabe helped to make Zimbabwe, "a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies."

More recently he's been criticised for delaying action on declaring COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and his praise of China's measures to deal with the coronavirus.

After his visit to Beijing in late January, Dr Tedros said China set "a new standard for outbreak control." A few days later, he told world leaders at the Munich Security Conference that China "had bought the world time."

Lawrence Gostin, Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University told BBC news, Dr Tedros is trying to “coax China to transparency and international cooperation rather than criticising the government."

"I was one of the first to ask him to call a PHEIC," Prof Gostin told the BBC.  

"Having said that, it was only a short delay and I don't think the timing had any impact on the trajectory of Covid-19.

"I do worry quite a bit however that his effusive praise for China could in the long term tarnish the WHO's reputation as a trusted scientific authority willing to speak truth to power."

WHO trailblazer 

Despite the controversy, Dr Tedros has received plaudits over the years. He’s been considered as a trailblazer, being the first African person to lead WHO, and was the first Director-General to be elected from multiple candidates by the World Health Assembly. He is currently three years into a five-year term.

He has been praised for his work in combating the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he spent time on the ground in a bid to support health workers and raise efforts to support their security.  Multiple attacks had been launched against health facilities in the DRC, and Dr Tedros viewed health workers’ safety as integral to the fight against the disease, telling responders last year, “ending the outbreak cannot be done without a much stronger effort to improve your security. We call on those responsible for security to recognize your extraordinary efforts by making a greater commitment to your security." 

Dr Tedros is also widely credited for reforming Ethiopia’s health sector, a country that’s only second to Nigeria as Africa’s most populated country. He was awarded the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award in recognition for his contributions to public health in 2011.


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