Tearful Tedros re-elected as WHO chief after secret ballot

World Health Organisation director general confirmed by UN health agency’s member countries for second five-year term

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African to head the World Health Organisation, was re-elected for a second five-year term following a secret ballot.

He said he was humbled by the appointment and became tearful during his acceptance speech.

Dr Tedros described himself as “a child of war” and that after witnessing his younger brother’s death at an early age, it was “luck [that] brought me all the way here”.

His upbringing during war was especially meaningful given the current situation in Ukraine.

“Let peace and understanding be the antidote to war,” he said.

“I am really, really overwhelmed by the support,” Dr Tedros told the assembly after his re-election was announced to thundering applause.

“This recognition is not only for me. I really believe this is recognition for the whole WHO family. I am really proud to be WHO.”

An overwhelming majority of the WHO's 194 member states voted for Dr Tedros to continue as the UN health agency's director general.

No other candidate challenged Dr Tedros for the post amid the continuing difficulties of responding to the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

He is the first African to lead the agency and the only director general not qualified as a medical doctor, though he has a doctorate in community health.

Dr Tedros became a familiar face after he spearheaded the global response to the coronavirus pandemic — an issue that remains centre at the WHO's annual assembly taking place in Geneva this week.

The Ethiopian former minister of health and of foreign affairs has also increasingly been sounding the alarm over the heavy toll that conflicts such as the war in Ukraine are taking on global health.

“More even than pandemics, war shakes and shatters the foundations on which previously stable societies stood,” the 57-year-old malaria expert said at the start of the assembly on Sunday.

“And it leaves psychological scars that can take years or decades to heal.”

Amid the near-universal focus on Ukraine after the Russian invasion, Dr Tedros slammed the global community for not doing enough to solve crises elsewhere, including Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, arguing that it was possibly because those suffering were not white.

While leading the WHO throughout its management of the global response to Covid-19, he has withstood occasionally withering criticism over its many missteps.

Under Dr Tedros, the UN health agency failed to call out countries including China for blunders that WHO officials grumbled about privately, advised against mask-wearing for months and said initially that the coronavirus was not likely to mutate rapidly.

Scientists drafted by the WHO to investigate the coronavirus’s origins in China said the critical probe was “stalled ” last year after issuing a report that even Dr Tedros acknowledged had prematurely ruled out the possibility of a laboratory leak.

“There have been some mishaps, but Tedros has also been a steady voice throughout the pandemic, advocating for an equitable response,” said Javier Guzman, director of global health policy at the Centre for Global Development in Washington.

He said despite reservations about Dr Tedros’s leadership, some countries weren’t willing to push for change.

“We are in the middle of the pandemic and there is some pressure for consistent leadership to take us through this difficult moment,” Mr Guzman said.

Still, critics say Dr Tedros has failed on some fundamental issues, such as holding staff accountable after allegations that dozens of outbreak workers managed by the WHO sexually abused young women in Congo during an Ebola outbreak that began in 2018 in one of the biggest sex scandals in UN history.

None of the senior WHO managers alerted to the abuse allegations have been fired.

Some experts have also raised concerns that the WHO is not fulfilling its primary role as a technical agency providing science-based guidance to countries.

David Tomlinson, a cardiologist who has campaigned for better protective equipment for health workers in Britain’s health system, says he has been appalled by WHO advice, most notably their reluctance to acknowledge that Covid-19 is widely spread in the air.

In July 2020, more than 230 scientists published a paper appealing to the WHO to recognise that coronavirus was airborne. This later prompted the organisation to alter some of its recommendations.

Dr Tomlinson and others say Dr Tedros should ensure that the WHO’s top priority during future health emergencies is evaluating the science.

Updated: May 24, 2022, 7:53 PM
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