The storm clouds of COVID-19 still hang heavily over Europe, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) expert said on Thursday, with reported cases in the last 10 days alone, doubling to nearly 1 million. The continent now accounts for 10 per cent of the global total.
“Sadly, over 84,000 people in Europe have lost their lives to the virus”, said Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, during a briefing from the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
Of the 10 countries in the region with the highest numbers of cases, there have been some optimistic signs, with numbers declining in Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland in recent weeks. However, these gains are tempered by sustained – even increased – incidence in the United Kingdom, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation.
Next few weeks critical
“The next few weeks will be critical for Europe,” he said. “Make no mistake, despite this spring weather, we remain in the midst of a storm.” It is imperative that people not let down their guard.
As physical distancing and lockdowns to slow and stop COVID-19 transmission are affecting lives and livelihoods, he said Governments and health authorities must come up with answers to identify when, under what conditions and how to consider a safe transition through a gradual shift in measures.
‘Alarming and tragic’ caseload - WHO’s Tedros
Providing a global perspective, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized that almost 2 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported to the world health body. More than 123,000 have died, an “alarming and tragic” increase from when he briefed Missions last week.
He outlined WHO’s new strategy update for countries as they consider lifting social and economic restrictions. Extreme caution must be taken. “If done too quickly, we risk a resurgence that could be even worse than our present situation”, he warned.
Transmission control, fundamental
First and foremost, transmission must be controlled. Health system capacities should be in place to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact.
Further, he said outbreak risks must be minimized in special settings, such health facilities and nursing homes, and preventive measures put in place for workplaces, schools and other places where it is essential for people to go. It is also vital that importation risks be managed and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the “new norm”.
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In the meantime, WHO last week launched the United Nations Supply Chain Task Force, with the World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners – an emergency supply chain designed to cover more than 30 per cent of the world’s needs in the acute phase of the pandemic. It will have hubs in eight countries and deploy 16 Boeing 747s and medium-sized cargo aircraft, plus passenger planes.
He said millions of supplies will be shipped each month, including personal protective gear, respirators, lab equipment and oxygen, as well as medical and technical staff. The first Solidarity Flight took off on 14 April.
Noting that WFP estimates $280 million will be needed to cover the costs of storing and moving supplies, he said the costs of procuring supplies will be much greater and urged donors to support this vitally important system.
WHO policy on China’s wet markets, mischaracterized
He pushed back on inaccurate media reports characterizing the World Health Organization’s view on the re-opening of wet markets in China. The agency’s position remains that all sectors affected by COVID-19 — including food markets in China and around the world – must ensure strong regulatory systems, high standards of cleanliness, hygiene and safety once they are in a position to gradually resume normal activities.
In addition, he said Governments should rigorously enforce bans on the sale of wildlife, as well as food safety and hygiene regulations to ensure that food sold in markets is safe.
WHO has provided guidance and support to countries on safe and healthy markets - including for food businesses on COVID-19 and on food safety and live animal markets. The agency has been working closely with the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) since the start of the outbreak, to prevent zoonotic diseases in all concerned sectors, added Tedros.
Tensions spill over into violence over physical distancing
Speaking broadly on the challenges ahead, the Ethiopian former health minister, and highly qualified research scientist, voiced concern that violence reportedly has erupted as a result of physical distancing restrictions.
Meanwhile, schools have closed for an estimated 1.4 billion children. And there have been four new cases of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 10 April, after 54 days without a new case.
Nonetheless, WHO is committed to working with all countries to find tailored solutions to stop transmission, he said, while ensuring essential health services continue and mitigating the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. “Only by working together will we bring this pandemic under control”, he assured.