As cases of COVID-19 across the globe begin to decline and nations begin to recover, it is crucial to learn from the mistakes made throughout the pandemic to better prepare for the future.
That is what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, urged everyone to consider as he accepted the University of Michigan’s Thomas Francis Jr. Medal in Global Public Health on March 13.
Tedros, the first African and nonphysician director-general of the WHO, led the global public health organization through the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he is confident COVID-19 will no longer be considered a public health emergency of international concern by the end of the year. What is most important now is to learn from the pandemic and plan for the future.
“It’s vital that we all make an honest assessment of the pandemic and learn its lessons, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes again,” said Tedros, pointing to three key lessons of the pandemic.
The first is the importance of a strong public health system. Tedros called on all countries at all income levels to invest in public health and primary health care.
The second lesson is the importance of science. Tedros said that throughout the pandemic, science provided experts with the tools to understand how the virus spreads and how to stop it.
However, he said, the politicization of science impeded the response to the pandemic and cost lives. Tedros said there is a moral imperative, for the sake of those lost, to trust the science and help all communities protect themselves against COVID-19.
The third lesson is the importance of cooperation. Tedros said the COVID-19 pandemic was characterized “by lack of cooperation and coordination” due to nations failing to put together a coherent and cohesive global response.
He said an international negotiation is needed to create accords that will guide a global response to future epidemics and pandemics.
“The challenges we face in global health can seem daunting. No single country or agency can address these challenges alone. But when we work together, we can overcome anything,” Tedros said.
The ceremony took place before an in-person audience at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business’ Robertson Auditorium and those watching via a YouTube livestream.
Named after renowned U-M virologist and infectious disease expert Thomas Francis Jr., the medal comes with a $50,000 award and is one of the university’s highest honors. It is given periodically to individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of global health and helped to establish a healthier future for their society.
Tedros is the fourth person to receive the award. Previous recipients include Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in 2016, Alfred Sommer in 2010, and William Foege in 2005.
Born in Eritrea, Tedros was first elected WHO director-general in 2017 and reelected in May 2022. Before joining WHO, he was minister of foreign affairs in Ethiopia and, previously, was minister of health.
President Santa J. Ono said he was proud of U-M’s legacy of groundbreaking research to fight diseases, and it will continue to serve society through excellence in research, education and service to help battle future threats.
“Global inequities and emerging diseases continue to threaten, steal and destroy our common well-being,” Ono said. “Today, we’re applying tools unimaginable decades ago to address new threats and new challenges to public health.”
Following Tedros’ speech, Matthew Boulton, Pearl L. Kendrick Collegiate Professor of Global Public Health, professor of global public health and of epidemiology, and senior associate dean for global public health in the School of Public Health, moderated a panel highlighting collective actions to improve overall global health.
Along with Tedros, the panelists included:
- Paul Fleming, assistant professor of health behavior and health education, School of Public Health.
- Joneigh Khaldun, adjunct professor of health management and policy, School of Public Health; vice president and chief health equity officer for CVS Health, former chief medical executive for the state of Michigan; former member of the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.
- Jody Lori, Sarah H. and Robert B. Rothschild Endowed Professor of Global Nursing, professor of nursing, associate dean of global affairs and community engagement, School of Nursing.