TIME 100 Talks
September 24, 2020 3:18 PM EDT

When a contagious, deadly pandemic sweeps around the globe, people look to the World Health Organization (WHO) for guidance. It’s not easy to be the person in charge under those circumstances, but as director-general of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has led the way.

Tedros, as he likes to be called, is one of the TIME100 honorees for 2020. During a TIME100 Talks interview with Senior Correspondent Alice Park, he discussed the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the dangers of politicizing a virus that knows no boundaries.

March 11, 2020—the day the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic—is seared into many people’s minds. But by then, the WHO had been ringing the alarm for more than a month; on Jan. 30, when most cases were in China, the WHO declared the outbreak a global health emergency. “We were using language asking the world to wake up in early February,” Tedros said. “From the start, we knew it was serious. It was dangerous. It was public enemy number one.”

There was so much more to come. Dealing with a brand-new virus meant starting with little knowledge, and the WHO made missteps along the way. It’s been criticized for being late to recommend that the general public wear face coverings, guidance that only came in early June. Previously, it had only advised that health care workers, people with the disease and those taking care of them should wear medical masks. “There was a shortage of masks that our health workers can use,” Tedros said. “We were really concerned, so we said priority should be given to health workers, especially with regard to medical masks.” The WHO also faced backlash in June when the COVID-19 lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, said at a press briefing that asymptomatic transmission appears to be “very rare.” (She later clarified that the actual rates aren’t yet known.)

But the WHO predicted early on the dangers of politicizing the virus. “From day one we have been saying, please, you need national unity and global solidarity,” Tedros said. “We called on political parties and others to actually unite on the fight against the pandemic. I know some countries”—including Finland—”have even formed a committee of the ruling and the opposition party to fight the pandemic together.”

It’s an understatement to say that that didn’t happen in the U.S. President Donald Trump blamed the WHO for the spread of the virus, and in April said he would stop U.S. funding for the WHO. On May 29, he terminated the U.S.’s relationship with the WHO. “My first reaction was, to be honest, I didn’t believe it,” Tedros said. “Even now I believe that the U.S. Administration doesn’t have any good reason to withdraw from WHO.” The move was especially surprising to Tedros because he spoke to President Trump in March and said the conversation was “very good,” he said. “We don’t agree on everything; it’s normal. He was very cordial.”

“We still don’t know the impact of the withdrawal,” Tedros said. “But I don’t see the U.S. membership or the relationship with the U.S. as a financial transaction. It’s not the money which matters. It’s actually the global leadership of the U.S.”

“When the world is not working together and there is a crack, a division between them,” he said, “the virus gets the advantage.”

The next step forward in the global fight against the pandemic will be the development and distribution of vaccines. “There is a chance to have vaccines by the end of this year or early next year,” Tedros said. “The basic principle we’re following now, in terms of distribution of the vaccines, is to give vaccines to some people in all countries, not all people in some countries.” For instance, “20-30% of the population could be covered in each and every country,” he said; priority will be given to senior citizens, health care workers and people with underlying health conditions. “There should be a political commitment, a decision by all leaders, to make vaccines a global public good and use the formula that WHO is proposing.”

The pandemic has laid bare how weak the public health systems are in many nations—and not just low- and middle-income countries. This must change, Tedros said. “The most important thing is treating health as a fundamental human right issue: real commitment, not lip service, to universal health coverage and primary health care as a foundation, and big investment in public health. Simple public health solutions are important, especially to prevent pandemics.”

Write to Mandy Oaklander at mandy.oaklander@time.com.

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