WHO: COVID-19 brings out best and worst of humanity, says DG

Geneva, 19 May (Kanaga Raja) -The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best – and the worst – of humanity and has exposed the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. In his opening remarks at the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) on Monday, held in a virtual setting, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) must be treated with the respect and attention it deserves.
More than four-and-a-half million cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO, and more than 300,000 people have lost their lives, he said.
“But numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of this pandemic. Each loss of life leaves a scar for families, communities and nations. The health impacts of the pandemic extend far beyond the sickness and death caused by the virus itself,” Dr Tedros added.
Referring to the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, which is being commemorated this year, he said that nurses and midwives have been on the front-lines of the fight against COVID-19, putting themselves in harm’s way, with many having made the ultimate sacrifice in service of humanity.
The WHO’s State of the World’s Nursing report shows that the world is facing a shortfall of 6 million nurses to achieve and sustain universal health coverage.
Dr Tedros emphasized that now more than ever, the world needs nurses and midwives.
“We have come together as the nations of the world to confront the defining health crisis of our time,” he told the delegates.
The world has confronted several pandemics before. This is the first caused by a coronavirus, he said.
“This is a dangerous enemy, with a dangerous combination of features: this virus is efficient, fast, and fatal. It can operate in the dark, spread silently if we’re not paying attention, then suddenly explode if we aren’t ready. And [it] moves like a bushfire.”
“We have seen the same pattern repeated in cities and countries the world over. We must treat this virus with the respect and attention it deserves,” said Dr Tedros, noting that more than four-and-a-half million cases of COVID- 19 have now been reported to WHO, and more than 300,000 people have lost their lives.
But numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of this pandemic. Each loss of life leaves a scar for families, communities and nations.
The health impacts of the pandemic extend far beyond the sickness and death caused by the virus itself.
The disruption to health systems threatens to unwind decades of progress against maternal and child mortality, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, non-communicable diseases, mental health, polio and many other of the most urgent health threats, said the WHO DG.
“And yet this is so much more than a health crisis. Lives and livelihoods have been lost or up-ended. Hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs. Fear and uncertainty abound.”
The global economy is headed for its sharpest contraction since the Great Depression, he added.
“The pandemic has brought out the best – and worst – of humanity: Fortitude and fear; solidarity and suspicion; rapport and recrimination.”
“This contagion exposes the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world. It has highlighted our strengths and our vulnerabilities.”
Science has been hailed and scorned. Nations have come together as never before, and geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief.
“We have seen what is possible with cooperation, and what we risk without it. The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet,” Dr Tedros underlined.
“Any efforts to make our world safer are doomed to fail unless they address the critical interface between people and pathogens, and the existential threat of climate change that is making our earth less habitable.”
“For all the economic, military and technological might of nations, we have been humbled by this very small microbe. If this virus is teaching us anything, it’s humility. Time for humility.”
Six months ago, it would have been inconceivable to most that the world’s biggest cities would fall eerily quiet; that shops, restaurants, schools and workplaces would be closed; that global travel would grind to a standstill; that simply shaking hands could be life-threatening.
Terms once used only by epidemiologists, like “reproduction number”, “physical distancing” and “contact tracing” have become common parlance.
In less than five months, the pandemic has encircled the globe, he said, adding that all countries have faced challenges in coming to grips with this virus – rich and poor, large and small.
Low-income countries, small island developing states and those suffering from violence and conflict are trying to confront this threat in the most challenging of circumstances.
“How do you practice physical distancing when you live in crowded conditions? How do you stay at home when you have to work to feed your family? How do you practice hand hygiene when you lack clean water?” Dr Tedros asked.
He noted that some countries are succeeding in preventing widespread community transmission; some have issued stay-at-home orders and imposed severe social restrictions to suppress community transmission; some are still bracing for the worst, and some are now assessing how to ease the restrictions that have exacted such a heavy social and economic toll.
He said that WHO fully understands and supports the desire of countries to get back on their feet and back to work.
“It’s precisely because we want the fastest possible global recovery that we urge countries to proceed with caution. Countries that move too fast, without putting in place the public health architecture to detect and suppress transmission, run a real risk of handicapping their own recovery.”
Early serology studies are painting a consistent picture: even in the worst-affected regions, the proportion of the population with the tell-tale antibodies is no more than 20 percent, and in most places, less than 10 percent.
In other words: the majority of the world’s population remains susceptible to this virus.
“The risk remains high and we have a long road to travel,” Dr Tedros warned. “Over the past few months, we have learned an enormous amount about how to prevent infections and save lives. But there is no single action that has made the difference. Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not isolation, quarantine, hand hygiene or physical distancing alone.”
The countries that have done well have done it all, he said, adding that this is the comprehensive approach that WHO has called for consistently.
“There is no silver bullet. There is no simple solution. There is no panacea. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
However, Dr Tedros said that there are many common components that must be part of every national strategy: a whole-of-government and whole-of-society response that engages and empowers people and communities to keep themselves and others safe; the commitment and capacity to find, isolate, test and care for every case, and trace and quarantine every contact; and special attention to vulnerable groups like people living in nursing homes, refugee camps, prisons and detention centres.
“Since day one, WHO has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with countries in these darkest of hours. WHO sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often,” he said.
“We notified countries, issued guidance for health workers within 10 days, and declared a global health emergency – our highest level of alert – on the 30th of January. At the time, there were less than 100 cases and no deaths outside China.”
“We have provided technical guidance and strategic advice, based on the latest science and experience. We have supported countries to adapt and implement that guidance.
“We have shipped diagnostics, personal protective equipment, oxygen and other medical supplies to more than 120 countries. We have trained more than 2.6 million health workers, in 23 languages. We have driven research and development, through the Solidarity Trial.
“We have called for equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics through the ACT Accelerator. We have informed, engaged and empowered people. We have fought the infodemic, combating myths with reliable information. And we have called consistently for the two essential ingredients for conquering this virus: national unity and global solidarity.”
Dr Tedros said, “We all have lessons to learn from the pandemic. Every country and every organization must examine its response and learn from its experience.”
“WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement. For us, change is a constant,” he added.
“In fact, the existing independent accountability mechanisms are already in operation, since the pandemic started.”
Dr Tedros said that he will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response.
“But one thing is abundantly clear. The world must never be the same. We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again.”
Whatever lessons there are to learn from this pandemic, the greatest failing would be to not learn from them and to leave the world in the same vulnerable state it was before. If there is anything positive to come from this pandemic, it must be a safer and more resilient world, he said.
He noted that reviews after SARS, the H1N1 pandemic and the West African Ebola epidemic highlighted shortcomings in global health security, and made numerous recommendations for countries to address those gaps.
“Some were implemented; others went unheeded.”
The SARS outbreak gave rise to the revision of the International Health Regulations, in 2005; the H1N1 pandemic saw the creation of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework; and the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2015 led to the establishment of the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, the WHO Emergencies Programme and the Independent Oversight Advisory Committee.
“The world doesn’t need another plan, another system, another mechanism, another committee or another organization. It needs to strengthen, implement and finance the systems and organizations it has – including WHO,” said Dr Tedros.
“The time has come to weave together the disparate strands of global health security into an unbreakable chain – a comprehensive framework for epidemic and pandemic preparedness.”
In this context, Dr Tedros called on all nations to resolve that they will do everything it takes to ensure that the 2020 coronavirus pandemic is never repeated.
“I am calling on all nations to invest in strengthening and implementing the many tools at our disposal – especially the global treaty that underpins global health security: the International Health Regulations.”
“To be successful, we must all commit to mutual ownership and accountability. One way to do that, proposed by the Africa Group last year, is through a system of universal periodic review, in which countries agree to a regular and transparent review of each nation’s preparedness,” he said.
Dr Tedros also noted that even before COVID-19, the world was off-track for the SDGs.
“The pandemic threatens to set us back even further. It exploits and exacerbates existing gaps in gender equality, poverty, hunger and more. Already we have seen the impact of the pandemic on immunization campaigns and many other essential health services.”
COVID-19 is not just a global health emergency, it is a vivid demonstration of the fact that there is no health security without resilient health systems, or without addressing the social, economic, commercial and environmental determinants of health, said the WHO DG.
“More than ever, the pandemic illustrates why investing in health must be at the centre of development. I will repeat this: More than ever, the pandemic illustrates why investing in health must be at the centre of development.”
40 years ago, the nations of the world came together under the banner of WHO to rid the world of smallpox. They showed that when solidarity triumphs over ideology, anything is possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic is posing a similar threat – not just to human health, but to the human spirit.
“We have a long road ahead in our struggle against this virus. The pandemic has tested, strengthened and strained the bonds of fellowship between nations. But it has not broken them.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic is asking us two fundamental questions: What sort of world do we want? And what sort of WHO do we want? The answer to the first question will determine the answer to the second.”
“Now more than ever, we need a healthier world. Now more than ever, we need a safer world. Now more than ever, we need a fairer world. Healthy, safe and fair. And now more than ever, we need a stronger WHO. There is no other way forward but together,” Dr Tedros concluded.
(Published in SUNS #9124 dated 20 May 2020)