408 views | Akpan Akata | May 12, 2021
It seems the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic is still a long way from over despite many reasons given to be optimistic and the possibility of bringing the virus under control “within months”.
Though January and February saw six consecutive weeks of plummeting COVID-19 cases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief said that had gone into reverse, with last week yielding “the fourth-highest number of cases in a single week so far”.
“We have now seen seven consecutive weeks of increasing cases, and four weeks of increasing deaths”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists at a regular media briefing last April.
More than 780 million doses of vaccine have now been administered globally, but several Asian and Middle Eastern countries have seen large increases in infections, he said.
While acknowledging that vaccines are “vital and powerful” instruments, the WHO chief reiterated that they are not the only tools needed to defeat the coronavirus.
“Physical distancing works. Masks work. Hand hygiene works. Ventilation works. Surveillance, testing, contact tracing, isolation, supportive quarantine and compassionate care – they all work to stop infections and save lives”, Tedros underscored.
‘Complacency and inconsistency’
While stressing the need for “a consistent, coordinated and comprehensive approach” in battling the virus, he said that “confusion, complacency and inconsistency in public health measures and their application, are driving transmission and costing lives”.
WHO wants to see societies and economies reopening, and travel and trade resuming, instead it is witnessing intensive care units overflowing and people dying, which Tedros maintained “is totally avoidable”.
He said proven public health measures and strong systems that have enabled countries to respond rapidly and consistently, illustrate that COVID “can be stopped and contained”, adding that those nations are now able to enjoy sporting events, concerts, restaurants and seeing their family and friends safely.
Currently, global manufacturing is insufficient to deliver quick, equitable vaccines and other essential health products, according to the WHO official.
Early in the pandemic, African countries agreed on a coordinated continental approach, “and now they’re coming together for a coordinated approach to scaling up manufacturing”, he said.
Tedros stressed the importance of investing in “sustainable and secure domestic manufacturing capacity and national regulatory authorities”, asserted that “what can be done today, should be done today”.
Noting that WHO and its partners have established a COVAX manufacturing taskforce, to increase supply and build a sustainable vaccine manufacturing platform, he offered the UN agency’s technical assistance in assessing the feasibility of local production and to access technology and know-how.
Despite continuing transmissions, some countries are re-opening restaurants, night clubs and indoor markets, with too few people taking precautions.
Moreover, the UN health chief observed that some young people appear to feel that it doesn’t matter if they get COVID-19.
“Young, healthy people have died. And we still don’t fully understand the long-term consequences of infection for those who survive”, he reminded, echoing reports of some mild cases that have left long-term symptoms, including fatigue, weakness and anxiety.
While the pandemic is “a long way from over”, Tedros said there were numerous reasons to be optimistic.
He pointed to the decline in cases and deaths during the first two months of the year as evidence that the virus and its variants can be stopped.
“With a concerted effort to apply public health measures alongside equitable vaccination, we could bring this pandemic under control in a matter of months”, he attested.
However, the WHO chief added that this hinges on the decisions and actions that governments and individuals make every day, spelling out: “The choice is ours”.
But, despite decreased instances in most regions, including the two worst-affected – the Americas and Europe, the WHO chief still told journalists at a regular press briefing, “any decline is welcome, but we have been here before”.
”Over the past year, many countries have experienced a declining trend in cases and deaths, have relaxed public health and social measures too quickly, and individuals have let down their guard, only for those hard-won gains to be lost”, he warned.
Trending upward in Southeast Asia
In Southeast Asia however, COVID cases and deaths are increasing rapidly and there are countries in every region where the figures are ticking up, according to the WHO chief.
On behalf of the WHO Foundation, Tedros launched the Together for India appeal to help fund the UN agency’s work in the country, including the purchase of oxygen, personal protective equipment and medicines.
Noting the spread of variants, increased social mixing, the relaxation of public health and social measures, as well as inequitable levels of vaccination, he said: “Globally, we are still in a perilous situation”.
Vaccine access disparity
While vaccines are reducing severe disease and death in countries fortunate enough to have them in sufficient quantities, the “shocking” global disparity in access remains “one of the biggest risks to ending the pandemic”, underscored the WHO chief.
Despite early results suggesting that vaccines might also drive down transmission, he explained that while high and upper-middle income countries represent 53 per cent of the world’s population, they have received 83 per cent of its vaccines.
And by contrast, low and lower-middle income countries, which account for 47 per cent of the global population, have received just 17 per cent of the shots supplied by manufacturers so far.
“Redressing this global imbalance is an essential part of the solution”, that also requires a combination of public health measures.
“Vaccines prevent disease. But we can also prevent infection with public health tools that have been so effective in so many places”, said Tedros.
Tedros advised leaders to use every tool at their disposal to “immediately drive transmission down” and if a country is seeing figures trend downward, to surge its capacity for keeping the pressure on.
“Even in countries with the highest vaccination rates, public health capacities must be strengthened to prepare for the possibility of vaccine-evading variants, and for future emergencies”, he said.
To individuals, the WHO chief reminded that every contact with someone outside their household presents a risk that varies according to type, duration and level of contact.
“The more contacts, the higher the risk”, he said.
Zero transmission goal
Tedros said there would come a time when everyone will be able to unmask, meet up at close range and safely participate in concerts, sporting events and rallies, once their country has no transmission.
To get there, he urged all States to develop and implement “comprehensive and cohesive” national plans, based on the 10 pillars of WHO’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan.
“How quickly we end the pandemic, and how many sisters and brothers we lose along the way, depends on how quickly and how fairly we vaccinate a significant proportion of the global population, and how consistently we all follow proven public health measures”, he concluded.