Geneva (AFP) – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African to head the World Health Organization, faces the towering challenge of coordinating a global pandemic response increasingly complicated by US-China tensions.
The former Ethiopian minister of health and foreign affairs finds himself at the heart of global efforts to rein in the novel coronavirus, which has now killed more than 300,000 people and infected close to five million.
On Monday, Tedros opens the UN health agency’s main annual event, the World Health Assembly, which due to the pandemic will be held virtually and has been trimmed from the usual three weeks to just two days.
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Tedros said the event would be “one of the most important (WHAs) since we were founded in 1948”.
Countries hope to adopt by consensus a resolution urging a joint response to the crisis, but the efforts have been clouded by steadily deteriorating relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Trump last week threatened to cut ties with China, where the outbreak began late last year, over its role in the spread of COVID-19, and has repeatedly made unproven allegations that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.
– Biggest challenge –
The US president has also ramped up criticism of Tedros and WHO, accusing them of being too close to China and mismanaging the pandemic response.
And last month, Trump announced that Washington, the biggest contributor to the UN health agency, would suspend its funding.
The pandemic, combined with the threat of lost US funding, clearly constitutes the biggest challenge to date in the WHO director-general’s three-year tenure.
But Tedros, 55, a malaria specialist with degrees from Britain in public health and immunology, and the first person ever elected to the helm of the WHO, should have the legitimacy and strong support to weather the storm.
Tedros is renowned for his warmth and a tendency to call everyone from colleagues to world leaders “brother” or “sister”, setting him apart from the famously cool persona of his appointed predecessor, Margaret Chan of China.