The Anguish of the World’s Doctor

I’ve known and admired Dr. Tedros for 15 years, but we have periodically tangled over his deference to dictators. I asked Dr. Tedros about that, but he didn’t want to discuss politics of any kind — including whether countries should pressure Ethiopia to stop the slaughter of Tigrayans. He seems deeply conflicted, torn between what he sees as a professional duty to his organization to be impartial, and the horror of an ethnic cleansing of his own people.

Presiding over these crimes against humanity in Tigray is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, who came to power in 2018 and was initially hailed as a great reformer; he even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Abiy is a pro-Western figure over whom the United States has considerable influence — if we will only use it.

The Tigray crisis is rooted in ethnic tensions and a power struggle. For almost three decades, people from Tigray dominated Ethiopia’s central government; Dr. Tedros became Ethiopia’s highly regarded health minister in that period, then foreign minister. This Tigrayan-led government ruled effectively, greatly raising living standards, but it was also repressive, torturing critics, imprisoning journalists and stirring deep resentments among other Ethiopians.

After taking power, Prime Minister Abiy reined in Tigrayans and dispatched troops in November to crush what he said was a mutiny in the region. That triggered a civil war with Tigray fighters, and Eritrea’s army entered to back up Ethiopia’s forces. There is also a risk of a wider war involving Sudan.

All sides in the conflict have committed atrocities, but by far the most serious and credible allegations are against the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and their allies.

As W.H.O. chief, Dr. Tedros has tried to get vaccines distributed more equitably around the world, while dealing with President Donald Trump’s appalling decision to pull the United States out of the W.H.O. (overturned by President Biden on his first day in office). In public, Dr. Tedros is focused on Covid-19 and has mostly kept quiet about atrocities in Tigray.

“The public sees Tedros devoting every day to managing the pandemic, but privately he is also managing his pain about Tigray,” said Dr. Annie Sparrow, an assistant professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine who was an adviser to Dr. Tedros.

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