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World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Never Stops Worrying

7 minute read

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 answering my questions, rarely breaking eye contact, that he appears not to notice traffic lights changing and cyclists whizzing past at alarming proximity. 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 Minister 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 outbreaks; 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 domestic 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 fundamental 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 outbreak raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo for more than a year), keeping an increasingly globalized world safe from unchecked spread of disease; and it can lessen racial, socioeconomic and gender disparities by securing better care for vulnerable 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 brother’s death. He was able to assign words to that feeling when, at age 23, he spent four months studying 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 countries with better access to care. The feeling only intensified when he grew acquainted with the U.K.’s national health system while working toward his master’s in infectious-disease immunology in London 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 celebrity 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 2012. 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 without 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 country. (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-General in its 69-year history. He took over shortly after the end of a brutal West African Ebola outbreak that many critics argued could have been minimized had the WHO done a better job of containing infection at the beginning. Two years in, Tedros’ job hasn’t gotten much easier. Ebola is back again, this time in the Congo. Skepticism of vaccines is proliferating, primarily in Western countries, and contributing to a resurgence of preventable illnesses like measles. Climate change is threatening human health at every level. And–despite drastic improvements over the past few decades–the global health community still struggles to protect vulnerable groups, like young children and women in childbirth. The WHO itself has drawn criticism from some in the public-health world, who have spoken out against its perceived organizational inefficiencies and overspending. Tedros also made headlines when he appointed Zimbabwe’s authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe a WHO goodwill ambassador in 2017, a decision Tedros eventually reversed.

Tedros remains preternaturally calm in the face of all of this, pouring his energy into work and shrugging off suggestions that perhaps he should take a break sometimes. (When he does get a rare free moment, he says he spends time with his wife and five children in Geneva or reads leadership and management books.) He remains committed to a dizzying array of projects at the WHO, from eliminating cervical cancer globally to removing trans fats from the world’s food supply, and sees global health problems that are almost mind-bogglingly daunting in scope not as obstacles, but as the reason for playing the game.

These challenges are never far from Tedros’ mind. When we meet on a cloudless Sunday morning to stroll Central Park, the morning after our first introduction, he looks like he’s off-duty in sweatpants, sneakers and a bright blue Walk the Talk T-shirt, a nod to a fitness challenge sponsored by the WHO. But after just a few minutes of conversation, it’s clear that, at least mentally, Tedros never takes it easy.

“I like traveling to rural areas. I like to see real people. I like to see the problem. You can’t see it from here,” Tedros says, gesturing at the park, bathed in cinematic, early-fall light. “Many people say they’re motivated by a positive thing. But me, what wakes me in the morning is the problem that has to be addressed. So I push on.”

Correction, Nov. 21

The original version of this story misstated where Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ family is based. They now live in Geneva, not Ethiopia.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com