For the Director-General of World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the emergence of the threatening new Omicron variant is showing how important it is for the world to end the current “cycle of panic and neglect” over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO chief was addressing the start of a special three-day meeting of the organisation’s governing body in Geneva on Monday, amid a global alert over the new strain, arguing that greater international cooperation is essential to preserve “hard-won gains” against the virus.
This is coming as the coronavirus pandemic is likely cost the global tourism sector $2 trillion in lost revenue in 2021, the UN’s tourism body said Monday, calling the sector’s recovery “fragile” and “slow.”
According to the latest forecast by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the same amount was lost in 2020, making it one of the sectors hit hardest by the health crisis.
Despite recent improvements, the report warned that demand for travel could be further affected by “uneven vaccination rates around the world and new COVID-19 strains which had prompted new travel restrictions in some countries.
In the past few days, the emergence of the Omicron variant has led dozens of countries to reinstate restrictions on arrivals, or to delay relaxation in COVID-19 travel and testing rules, leading to wide uncertainty for holiday season travellers worldwide.
Spikes in oil prices and the disruption of global supply chains have also had an effect. According to the latest UNWTO data, international tourist arrivals are expected to remain 70-75 per cent below 2019 levels in 2021, a similar decline as in 2020.
Although a 58 per cent increase in tourist arrivals was registered in July-September of this year compared to the same period in 2020, this remained 64 per cent below 2019 levels, the UN body found.
In August and September, arrivals were at 63 per cent lower than 2019, which is the highest monthly result since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between January and September 2021, worldwide international tourist arrivals stood at 20 per cent lower, compared to 2020, a clear improvement from the 54 per cent drop, over the first six months of the year.
“Data for the third quarter of 2021 is encouraging”, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said. “However, arrivals are still 76 per cent below pre-pandemic levels and results across the different global regions remain uneven.”
In light of the rising cases and the emergence of new variants, he added that “we cannot let our guard down and need to continue our efforts to ensure equal access to vaccinations, coordinate travel procedures, make use of digital vaccination certificates to facilitate mobility, and continue to support the sector.”
Despite the improvement seen in the third quarter of the year, the pace of recovery remains slow, and uneven across world regions. In some sub-regions, such as Southern and Mediterranean Europe, the Caribbean, North and Central America, arrivals actually rose above 2020 levels in the first nine months of 2021.
However, arrivals in Asia and the Pacific were down by as much as 95 per cent when compared with 2019, as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.
Africa and the Middle East recorded 74 per cent and 81 per cent drops respectively in the third quarter compared to 2019. Among the larger destinations, Croatia, Mexico and Turkey showed the strongest recovery in the period of July to September.
The Caribbean had the highest results of any of the subregions defined by the UNWTO, with arrivals up 55 per cent compared to 2020.
International tourist arrivals “rebounded” during the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere thanks to increased travel confidence, rapid vaccination and the easing of entry restrictions in many nations.
In Europe, the EU Digital Covid Certificate has helped facilitate free movement within the European Union, the report added.
However, the World Health Assembly meeting was convened to decide on the issue of a so-called “pandemic treaty”.
Tedros said the world has not responded accordingly to COVID-19, and vaccine inequity, among other challenges, has facilitated the appearance of new highly mutated variants such as Omicron.
“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores”, said the WHO Director-General.
Tedros underscored that South Africa – where Omicron was first identified just days ago – should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting the new variant, and not penalized, referring to the current travel bans many countries are imposing on the African nation and its neighbours.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also expressed his deep concern on Monday for the isolation now being felt by southern African countries due to the new restrictions imposed on travel from the region, by dozens of nations across the world.
“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalised for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world”, said Guterres, in a strongly-worded statement.
I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travellers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures”, he added.
The UN health agency has asked governments to take science-based decisions regarding travel bans. Guterres said it was important to take all appropriate measures to allow for travel and “economic engagement”.
Prevent history from repeating itself
The likelihood of the potential further spread of Omicron at the global level has been defined as “very high” by WHO.
Tedros reminded that although scientists still don’t know for certain if the variant is associated with more risk of transmission and severe disease, or if it has any impact on the effectiveness of vaccines, the world shouldn’t need another ‘wake up call’.
“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us. We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant. Our most immediate task, therefore, is to end this pandemic”, he highlighted.
The WHO chief added that our ability to end the current pandemic is a ‘test for our collective ability to prevent and respond effectively to future pandemics’.
“The same principles apply: Courageous and compassionate leadership; Fidelity to science; Generosity in sharing the fruits of research; And an unshakeable commitment to equity and solidarity.
“If we cannot apply those principles now to tame COVID-19, how can we hope to prevent history repeating?”, he asked delegates from more than 190 countries.
More than 80% of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries while low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6% of all vaccines, Tedros emphasised.
He reiterated the message he has been sending the world for over a year: vaccine equity is not charity, but it is in every country’s best interests.
“No country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic alone. The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more opportunity this virus has to spread and evolve in ways we cannot predict nor prevent. We are all in this together”, he explained.
Human rights experts joined Tedros on his call on Monday, urging States to act decisively to ensure that all people have equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those in low-income countries who have largely been left out of the global response.
More than 27 UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts sent a joint statement as a response to the announcement of the indefinite postponement of the World Trade Organisation 12th Ministerial Conference, in which a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to facilitate vaccine patents was set to be discussed.
“The postponement… should not be a reason to delay progress already made: on the contrary, it confirms the urgent need to take collective action to address vaccine inequality…”, they said, adding that the priority should be to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.
On October 14, the experts sent 44 letters to the WTO, G7 and G20 States, the European Union and pharmaceutical companies urging equal and universal vaccine access. So far, only six responses have been received.
Moment to act
Comprehensive… Coordinated…Effective…Three words that history will not use to describe the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Tedros highlighted, advocating for a new common and binding global approach to pandemics.
He said that the task was urgent but also required patience as a convention, agreement or another international instrument will not solve every problem.
“But, it will provide the overarching framework to foster greater international cooperation and provide a platform for strengthening global health security”, he added.
The special World Health Assembly session runs until Wednesday, and by the end of the three-day virtual meeting, countries will decide if there is political will to design a new international framework to respond to future pandemics.
In the meantime, Tedros has criticized “blunt” and “blanket” measures taken by countries in the past few days to stop the spread of the Omicron variant. In a statement on Tuesday, the WHO head said that it was “deeply concerning” that Botswana and South Africa, where the new variant was first identified, were “being penalized by others for doing the right thing”.
Dozens of countries have imposed travel bans on the southern African nations since the mutation was discovered at the end of last week.
Threat still unknown
Tedros said that while it was understandable that all countries should want to protect their citizens, Omicron was still a largely unknown threat. And he insisted that the world should not forget “that we are already dealing with a highly transmissible, dangerous variant – the Delta variant, which accounts for almost all cases globally”.
As scientists race to understand how virulent and transmissible the new Omicron variant is, WHO is urging the use of all available precautions to stop the spread.
“As we don’t have any full picture of this variant, as long as we don’t know how well the existing vaccines are working…we need to use the measures that we know work,” said Christian Lindmeier, WHO spokesperson, during a scheduled briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
These measures include “mask-wearing…ventilating a room if possible, as often as possible, keeping the normal hand and body hygiene…We know these measures work”.
The WHO’s message comes as reports indicated potential concern voiced by the chief of vaccine manufacturer, Moderna, that existing shots may not be as effective against the new variant as previous ones, such as Delta.
Lindmeier said that more time was needed to reach a conclusion on the Omicron variant: “There might be higher transmissibility, according to initial reports”, he said, “hence we’re deeply looking. We still need a couple of weeks to get the details together and to know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
On Monday, Tedros addressed a special three-day meeting of the organisation’s governing body in Geneva, warning that the world shouldn’t need another “wake-up call” about the dangers of COVID-19 before deciding to act to prevent further pandemics.
“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us”, he said, adding, “we are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant. Our most immediate task, therefore, is to end this pandemic.”
Reinforcing Tedros’s message, Lindmeier pointed out that “Omicron is not the only variant out there, it’s now high on the agenda of interest. Let’s not forget there is Delta out there. There is a COVID-19 pandemic, even without the Omicron variant”.
Despite concerns that existing vaccines may not be as effective against Omicron, the WHO spokesman reiterated that a “high vaccination rate in the population works, we know that.
“The emergency rooms…are full of people with the most percentage unvaccinated. The most severe diseases and the most severe outcome until death is most often in those unvaccinated, and that’s of high importance.”
Lindmeier also stressed that it should not be forgotten that life-saving operations “are being postponed for months for people who urgently need them because of full emergency wards and hospitals. Let’s use all the measures we have right now until we know more.”