WHO chief: workplace ‘stress’ amid senior management shuffle

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks to journalists at a press conference organised by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU), 14 December 2022. (KEYSTONE/Martial Trezzini)

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke for the first time about widespread departures at the organisation, and admitted that the Covid pandemic created challenging workplace conditions.

In his first live press conference with accredited Geneva journalists on Wednesday since the start of the Covid-19, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) told Geneva Solutions that “there wasn’t anything special” regarding major exits among senior management positions.

Earlier this week, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, a British foundation,  and Amelia Latu Afuhaamango Tuipulotu, Tonga’s health minister, were appointed WHO’s chief scientist and chief nursing officer, respectively.

Tedros sent a short email to staff in late November announcing the departure of eight senior members of the organisation. The move had been anticipated by observers after he was re-elected in an uncontested ballot in August. Donors, led by the United States, had been pressuring WHO to streamline its 18-member senior leadership team to cut costs.

Tedros said “factors” for the reshuffle included age and having to retire, as well as other plans by the departing staff. “It is something you can expect from any organisation,” he said, denying that the departures were linked to any possible change of strategy within WHO.

Farrar, who will begin his role in the second quarter of 2023, replaces Soumya Swaminathan, whose departure had been anticipated before the November announcement. Health Policy Watch wrote in October that her independent management style may have been too independent for Tedros. In 2021, she had been sued by the Indian Bar Association, an independent lawyers’ group, for not recommending the use of a controversially promoted anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin, in Covid-19 treatment, and “running a disinformation campaign” against the medication.

Swaminathan and Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, 66, who also left WHO as former head of access to medicines and health products, have since expressed frustration that they could not achieve more amid a reluctance by big pharma and rich countries to participate more actively in vaccine- and knowledge-sharing programmes.

Tedros said that the organisation was working to fill a “remaining three or four posts”, without specifying which those would be.

Asked about whether all previous positions where departures have been announced will be filled, WHO’s communications team responded by saying they had “nothing to add to Dr Tedros's remarks regarding the hiring process”.

Covid impact

The Covid-19 pandemic has also left its mark on the WHO, which employs some 2,400 employees at its Geneva headquarters.

“The last two to three years have been very difficult. The WHO has been in the eye of the storm,” WHO’s director general told Geneva Solutions. He acknowledged current and former staff members for their contributions in fighting the health crisis, “in very stressful conditions”.

He said he recognises how the “whole of the WHO has been under stress for a long time. We are asking questions about how to give all the necessary support that our colleagues need at headquarters and at country-level.”

In recent years, the organisation has also been hit by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Most recently, in November Reuters reported that a senior manager at headquarters was suspended after a British doctor alleged she had been harassed at an off-site conference.

UN special rapporteurs wrote to Tedros in May to say that the WHO had responded inadequately to reports of sexual exploitation by staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Ebola response.

A number of staff association representatives for the WHO did not respond to a requests to comment on the situation in the organisation ahead of the publication of this article.