WHO director Tedros Ghebreyesus named 2021 commencement speaker

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

January 26, 2021 – Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), will serve as commencement speaker at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s 2021 ceremony in May.

An Ethiopian academic, politician, and public health leader, Dr. Tedros was elected as WHO’s director-general at the 70th World Health Assembly in May 2017, the first person from the WHO African Region to assume the role. “As someone who has worked tirelessly to reform health systems in Ethiopia and across Africa, he will bring great insight and the political leadership necessary to restore trust in the WHO at a critical moment in its history,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, at the time of Dr. Tedros’ appointment.

Dr. Tedros has since become a leader in the global fight against COVID-19, leading WHO’s efforts to tackle the pandemic, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable countries, and holding regular press briefings from the organization’s headquarters in Geneva. The pandemic, he recently commented, has “demonstrated the consequences of chronic underinvestment in public health. Returning to the status quo is not an option.”

Previously, Dr. Tedros served as Ethiopia’s minister of foreign affairs from 2012 to 2016, leading efforts to negotiate the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which provided the framework for financing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. He also served as Ethiopia’s minister of health from 2005 to 2012, during which time he led a comprehensive reform of the country’s health system, improving access to health care for millions of people and investing in critical health infrastructure.

Beyond Ethiopia, Dr. Tedros has worked at a global level to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS and to fight for maternal and child health. He was elected chair of the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria in 2009 and previously served as board chair of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and board co-chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

In an email announcement about Dr. Tedros to the Harvard Chan School community, Dean Michelle Williams wrote, “We live in a crucial time in history, when public health and public health leadership are more important than ever. Dr. Tedros has spent his career championing the rights of all people to live healthy, productive lives, and we are honored that he will share his remarkable insight and experience with our community.”

She noted that Dr. Tedros will also be presented with the 2021 Julius B. Richmond Award, the highest honor given by the Harvard Chan School. The Richmond Award recognizes individuals who have promoted and achieved high standards for public health conditions in vulnerable populations and who carry forth the vision of the award’s namesake, a former U.S. Surgeon General and Harvard emeritus professor. Dr. Richmond issued the momentous 1979 report “Smoking and Health,” which focused public attention on the proven dangers of smoking; set targets for the health of the American public with the Healthy People 2000 initiative; and was the first national director of Head Start.

Established in 1997, the Richmond award first honored Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services. Other previous recipients include Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Gro Harlem Brundtland, MPH ’65, the first female prime minister of Norway and a former director-general of WHO; and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Photo courtesy World Health Organization