Despite warnings from its own experts, the World Health Organization took two months to declare the devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014 an emergency, during which time 1,000 people died in West Africa. Leaked emails later revealed that officials were loath to call it an epidemic for fear of angering the African countries involved and hurting their economies.
The WHO’s handling of the outbreak, which went on to kill more than 11,000 people, has been seen as a sign of the desperate need to reform this global organization, which is responsible for marshaling the global response to epidemics.
On May 22, member state will choose among three candidates — all of whom have pledged deep changes to the organization — vying for the post of WHO director general. One of the candidates, however, has been accused of the same kind of emergency-related minimization of crises that marred the WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 52, Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012 and foreign minister until 2016, is a strong candidate for the post, backed by the African Union as well as countries in the Pacific and the Caribbean. He has an impressive track record in Ethiopia. The country also covered up cholera outbreaks under his watch.
The candidate, who goes by his first name and campaigns as Dr. Tedros, presided over a dramatic expansion of Ethiopia’s health system and reductions in infant and maternal mortality as well as deaths from malaria. He also extended the reach of the health system deep into remote rural areas.
In the past 10 years, Ethiopia is also the only country in the Horn of Africa that has not been touched by cholera — according to the government. Critics disagree.