In an address to the U.N. General Assembly's first high-level session on the pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that while the virus can be stopped, "the path ahead remains treacherous."
The pandemic has shown humanity at "its best and worst," he said, pointing to "inspiring acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, breathtaking feats of science and innovation, and heartwarming demonstrations of solidarity, but also disturbing signs of self-interest, blame-shifting and divisions."
Referring to the current upsurge in infections and deaths, Tedros said without naming any countries that "where science is drowned out by conspiracy theories, where solidarity is undermined by division, where sacrifice is substituted with self interest, the virus thrives, the virus spreads."
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is an Ethiopian biologist, public health researcher, and official who has been Director-General of the World Health Organization since 2017. Tedros is the first African in the role, and was endorsed by the African Union. He played a personal role in the response to both the Ebola outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before serving as Director-General, he held two high-level positions in the government of Ethiopia: Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012 and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012 to 2016. Tedros was included in Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
COVID-19 pandemic response
In early 2020, Tedros oversaw the world's management of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2020, Tedros met with Chinese leaders including Foreign Minister Wang Yi and paramount leader Xi Jinping about COVID-19. On 23 January 2020, the WHO stated it did not yet rise to the level of an international emergency, but that the organization was closely tracking the virus' evolution. During the announcement, Tedros said 'Make no mistake, though, this is an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.' On 31 January 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern . During the PHEIC announcement, Tedros stated there was no cause to limit trade or travel with China and said 'Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China.' In the first week of February 2020, Tedros reiterated per WHO and international guidelines that governments adopt policies to stop the spread of the disease that were 'evidence-based and consistent,' and not to 'unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.'
On 11 March 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Tedros commented, 'We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.' In March, he called the pandemic 'the defining global health crisis of our time' and urged countries to increase testing for the virus, as well as warning of the damage the virus could do in poor countries. Tedros praised China for its containment measures, describing them as a 'new standard for outbreak control.'
During the COVID-19 pandemic some government officials and public-health experts accused Tedros of failing to declare a pandemic soon enough, and of having a too close relationship with the government of China. According to the BBC, 'while Dr Tedros may be political, a lot of that political effort seems to be spent reassuring authoritarian, opaque governments, in a bid to get them to work with the WHO to tackle diseases which threaten global health.' African leaders expressed support for Tedros's handling of the COVID-19 crisis, with South African President and Chair of the African Union Cyril Ramaphosa stating that he showed 'exceptional leadership.'
On 8 April 2020, in response to President Donald Trump's threat to cut U.S. funding to the WHO, Tedros asked that the virus not be politicized and called for unity in fighting the 'common enemy.'
Tedros said he had received death threats and racist remarks that he attributed to Taiwan with complicity from its Foreign Ministry, an allegation Taiwanese officials vehemently denied, requesting an apology. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the claim had no evidence.
On 19 December 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the WHO, under Tedros's leadership, announced that it had secured 2 billion vaccine doses for distribution starting in 2021, once they had been approved by national agencies. Earlier that month, he said, 'progress on vaccines gives us all a lift and we can now start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, WHO is concerned that there is a growing perception that the COVID-19 pandemic is over'.