(Ben Green) #1

20 Time December 2–9, 2019

ing in Denmark after graduating from Eritrea’s
University of Asmara with a degree in biology, and
saw universal health care in action. He struggled to
reconcile “the unfairness” of a world where boys
like his brother could die because of an accident
of birth, while other children prospered in coun-
tries with better access to care. The feeling only in-
tensified when he grew acquainted with the U.K.’s
national health system while working toward his
master’s in infectious-disease immunology in Lon-
don in the early 1990s, and again in 1997, when he
got a front-row seat to Sweden’s universal- coverage
system. “Why do people die when we have the
means?” he asks. “That motivates me.”

Tedros’ is noT a household name. The whole
thing—Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—is foreign
even to him, since in Ethiopia, everyone goes by
their given name. “I remember the first time I went
abroad and people were waiting for me with my
name [on a sign]. I didn’t know who that person
was,” he says, laughing.
You may not know his name, but Tedros is a ce-
lebrity in the global health and diplomacy worlds.
As I trail him around the U.N. campus, we can’t go
more than a dozen steps without someone asking
for a photo, a handshake or simply a chance to say
hello; one man hangs out of an idling car on Second
Avenue just to get his attention. Tedros greets each
person warmly and attentively—even if it means
running late to his next appointment—while trying
to remember dozens upon dozens of names.
Tedros built his reputation as a malariologist
before becoming Ethiopia’s Minister of Health
in 2005, then its Minister of Foreign Affairs in

  1. While Minister of Health, Tedros was widely
    praised for building a female-focused primary-care
    system that deployed 38,000 community-health
    workers throughout the country, easing the nation’s
    health care shortage and helping to reduce maternal
    and child mortality by about 60% each, compared
    with 2000. Still, his time in Ethiopia was not with-
    out conflict: the country had an abysmal human-
    rights record during his tenure in government, and
    while campaigning to become the WHO’s Director-
    General in 2017, Tedros was accused by opponents
    of covering up cholera outbreaks in his home coun-
    try. (He denied that charge then, and continues to
    do so today. “They knew during the campaign they
    were losing ground, so they had to try their last try
    to discredit it,” he says now.)
    Tedros inherited a big job when, in July 2017,
    he became the WHO’s first African Director-Gen-
    eral in its 69-year history. He took over shortly
    after the end of a brutal West African Ebola out-
    break that many critics argued could have been
    minimized had the WHO done a better job of
    containing infection at the beginning. Two years

i am afraid for dr. Tedros’ safeTy.
The World Health Organization Director-
General and I are walking from the WHO’s
midtown- Manhattan offices to the nearby U.N.
campus, where Tedros is participating in the U.N.
General Assembly. As we cross avenues amid a
chorus of honking horns, Tedros is so intent on an-
swering my questions, rarely breaking eye contact,
that he appears not to notice traffic lights chang-
ing and cyclists whizzing past at alarming proxim-
ity. His staff and I breathe a collective sigh of relief
when he arrives at the U.N. unscathed.
It should come as no surprise that the man
at the helm of the world’s leading global health
organization —after a decade serving as Minis-
ter of Health, then Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia— is
laser-focused on the issues that keep the public-
health community up at night: child and maternal
mortality; climate change; infectious- disease out-
breaks; emergency preparedness; and, most of all,
that “half of the world’s population doesn’t have
access to essential services.” That’s why Tedros
is committed to the WHO’s goal of helping every
country implement universal health coverage by
2030, calling on every nation, no matter how rich
or poor, to put an additional 1% of its gross do-
mestic product toward primary health care. “All
roads lead to universal health coverage,” Tedros
tells me before we leave the WHO’s offices. “It’s
when we have strong health systems in each and
every country that the world becomes safe. We’re
as strong as the weakest link.”
Tedros believes universal health care is a funda-
mental human right. But from his perspective, it’s
also a logical political selling point: it keeps people
out of poverty and strengthens economies; helps
prevent and contain epidemics (like the Ebola out-
break raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo
for more than a year), keeping an increasingly glo-
balized world safe from unchecked spread of dis-
ease; and it can lessen racial, socioeconomic and
gender disparities by securing better care for vul-
nerable populations.
When Tedros was a child living in Ethiopia, his
younger brother—then just 3 or 4—died of what
he now suspects was measles. “I didn’t accept it; I
don’t accept it even now,” Tedros says of his broth-
er’s death. He was able to assign words to that feel-
ing when, at age 23, he spent four months study-




Family man
Tedros has
five children,
ranging in
age from
12 to 27;
one, he says,
wants to
go into
public health.

Home base
he’s based
in Geneva,
Tedros says
he belongs
“to 194

Social status
Tedros’ social-
media savvy
has won
him more
than 415,

TheBrief TIME with ...

World Health Organization

chief Tedros Adhanom

Ghebreyesus never stops


By Jamie Ducharme

Free download pdf