The University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy hosted a discussion with Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, on Wednesday afternoon in partnership with the School of Public Health. Public Health Dean F. Dubois Bowman moderated the discussion, which centered around global responses to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Before being elected into his current position in 2017, Dr. Tedros worked as Minister of Health for Ethiopia’s federal government, where he led a major comprehensive reform of the country’s health system, and as Minister of Foreign Affairs, where he raised health as a political issue globally. 

Bowman began by asking Tedros how he and his team have been able to make decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of intense uncertainty. 

“Public health has been politicized during the pandemic in a way we’ve never seen before,” Bowman said. “Public health workers have faced dangerous and life-threatening behavior.”

Tedros said health care leaders had to ask themselves a variety of complex questions in the face of the pandemic, and he discussed the questions that guide his team in their decision-making.

“What level of restrictions should be imposed while preserving individual freedoms? How do we allocate resources?” Tedros said. “Many of these decisions are made under intense pressure from the public — the choice to invest in primary healthcare and infrastructure, the choice to give trust to communities through a strong social contract.”

Tedros then discussed how the politicization of public health has led to vaccine inequity. He said politicization does not position COVID-19 as a common enemy, while in reality, that is exactly what it is.

“Politicians use the virus to score points against their opponents and to politicize masks and vaccination,” Tedros said. “Please don’t politicize this, this is a common enemy; please use other things against your opponents. Some will follow their leaders and listen to them saying not to wear a mask. They will get exposed, and the virus will continue to spread.”

Tedros emphasized the need for vaccine equity, or equal distribution of the vaccine around the world regardless of race or socioeconomic status, to make sustainable change in stopping the virus from spreading and mutating. As an example to show the inequity of the vaccine’s distribution, he mentioned that only 5% of the entire population of Africa is fully vaccinated. 

“We are facing a two-track pandemic fueled by vaccine inequity,” Tedros said. “This is economically self-defeating, not only ethically immoral; the longer vaccine inequity exists, the longer the virus can mutate.”

LSA sophomore Caroline Dean attended the talk and said she feels strongly about the consequences of making the pandemic a political issue. She said she believes the loss of lives due to COVID-19 is, at its core, caused by the beliefs and actions promoted by political leaders. 

“Politicizing the COVID pandemic, in my opinion, is just as bad as the pandemic itself,” Dean said. “Now that we have a vaccine, political incentives are doing the killing — life and death should be non-partisan, and if we want this pandemic to pass with limited loss, both sides of the political spectrum must first acknowledge the virus and its various scientific and public health components.”

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