Eight months into the pandemic, we understand that people are tired and yearn to get on with their lives. We understand that countries want to get their societies and economies going again.
That’s what WHO wants too. Stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are something that some countries felt they needed to do to take pressure off their health systems. But they have taken a heavy toll on livelihoods, economies and mental health.
WHO fully supports efforts to re-open economies and societies. We want to see children returning to school and people returning to the workplace – but we want to see it done safely.
At the same time, no country can just pretend the pandemic is over.
The reality is that this coronavirus spreads easily, it can be fatal to people of all ages, and most people remain susceptible.
If countries are serious about opening up, they must be serious about suppressing transmission and saving lives.
This may seem like an impossible balance, but it’s not. It can be done, and it has been done. But it can only be done if countries are in control of transmission.
The more control countries have over the virus, the more they can open up.
Opening up without having control is a recipe for disaster.
It’s not one size fits all, it’s not all or nothing.
We believe there are four essential things that all countries, communities and individuals must focus on to take control.
First, prevent amplifying events. COVID-19 spreads very efficiently among clusters of people.
In many countries, we have seen explosive outbreaks linked to gatherings of people at stadiums, nightclubs, places of worship and in other crowds.
Preventing these amplifying events is essential, but there are ways to hold gatherings safely in some places.
Decisions about how and when to allow gatherings of people must be taken with a risk-based approach, in the local context.
Countries or communities experiencing significant community transmission may need to postpone events for a short time to reduce transmission.
On the other hand, countries or communities with sporadic cases or small clusters can find creative ways to hold events while minimizing risk.
Second, reduce deaths by protecting vulnerable groups, including older people, those with underlying conditions and essential workers.
Countries that do this well may be able to cope with low levels of transmission as they open up.
By protecting those who are most at risk, countries can save lives, prevent people becoming severely ill, and take the pressure off their health systems.
Third, individuals must play their part by taking the measures we know work to protect themselves and others – stay at least one metre away from others, clean your hands regularly, practise respiratory etiquette, and wear a mask.
Avoid the “three Cs”: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.
And fourth, governments must take tailored actions to find, isolate, test and care for cases, and trace and quarantine contacts. Widespread stay-at-home orders can be avoided if countries take temporary and geographically-targeted interventions.
To support countries in their efforts to open up, WHO has a range of evidence-based guidance, which can be applied in different transmission scenarios.
Recently we have published guidance for hotels and other accommodation, and guidance for cargo ships and fishing vessels.
This is all part of our commitment to supporting every sector to reopen as safely as possible.
Meanwhile, we are continuing to work with our partners through the ACT Accelerator and the COVAX Facility to ensure that once a vaccine is available, it’s available equitably to all countries.
I would like to thank the European Commission for its announcement today that it is joining the COVAX Facility, and for its contribution of 400 million euros.
As President Ursula von der Leyen said, global collaboration is the only way to overcome a global pandemic. I fully agree with Her Excellency the President.
Of course, it’s not just schools and businesses that have been affected by COVID-19.
In all countries, health systems have been put under extreme pressure, and the true impact of the pandemic in terms of increased sickness and death from other diseases remains to be seen.
A WHO survey published today from 105 countries shows that 90% of countries have experienced disruption to their health services. Low- and middle-income countries have been the most affected.
The survey shows that up to 70% of services have been disrupted for essential services including routine immunization, diagnosis and treatment for non-communicable diseases, family planning and contraception, treatment for mental health disorders and cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Many countries have started to implement some of WHO’s recommended strategies to mitigate service disruptions, such as triaging patients to identify priorities, shifting to on-line patient consultations, and changes to prescribing practices.
However, only 14% of countries reported removing user fees, which WHO recommends to offset potential financial difficulties for patients.
WHO will continue to work with countries to provide tools to maintain essential services.
For example, WHO is developing a “Health Services Learning Hub”, a web-based platform that will allow countries to share experiences and learn from each other.
Finally, I would like to mention WHO’s ongoing work responding to another emergency – the aftermath of the Beirut blast.
Although Beirut is no longer in the headlines, WHO is continuing to support Lebanon in the wake of the blast four weeks ago, which left more than 6,500 people injured, 300,000 people homeless, and severely damaged critical health infrastructure and medical supplies.
WHO and our partners are providing care for the injured, making sure everyone has access to basic and life-saving health services, providing mental health support for health workers and communities, and rebuilding destroyed hospitals.
At the same time, we are responding to COVID-19 by expanding testing and treatment, buying urgently needed medicines, and protecting health care workers.
To sustain this lifesaving work, WHO has launched an appeal for at least US$76 million.
We thank all donors who have already committed funds.
To support this appeal, the WHO Foundation, which we have recently established, has today launched a campaign to which any individual or organization can contribute.
To give, go to whofoundationproject.org, and click on “Donations”. Your contribution will make a difference to the lives of many who need support.
In closing, I would like to repeat the four critical things that countries, communities and individuals must focus on to control transmission so they can open their societies and economies safely.
First, prevent amplifying events.
Second, reduce deaths by protecting vulnerable groups.
Third, take the individual steps to protect yourself and others.
Fourth, find, isolate test and care for cases, and trace and quarantine contacts.
And above all, national unity and global solidarity are essential.
This virus thrives when we’re divided. When we’re united, we can defeat it.
I thank you.
The full Media update is here:
Listen to “WHO Media Update August 31 2020” on Spreaker.