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WHO offers urgent rallying cry over novel coronavirus

By Angus McNeice in London | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-16 00:24

The head of the World Health Organization has called on the international community to address the misinformation, "stigma and hate" generated by the ongoing novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak, and called on governments to increase funding and preparedness for the epidemic.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, or WHO, said that there remains an emergency situation in China due to the disease, which is called COVID-19.

"We are encouraged that the steps China has taken to contain the COVID-19 outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time, even though those steps have come at great cost to China itself," Ghebreyesus said from the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Saturday.

He added: "Let me be clear: it is impossible to predict which direction this COVID-19 outbreak will take. What I can tell you is what encourages us, and what concerns us."

Ghebreyesus said the WHO is concerned by the continued increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in China, as well as recent reports from China about the number of health workers who have been infected or who have died. He also said that the international community has failed to raise sufficient funds to combat the outbreak.

"We're concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the COVID-19 response," he said. "We're concerned about the severe disruption in the market for personal protective equipment, which is putting front-line health workers and carers at risk."

Ghebreyesus condemned the cycle of "panic and neglect" that the international community finds itself in during and between outbreaks.

"We throw money at an outbreak, and when it's over, we forget about it and do nothing to prevent the next one," he said ."The world spends billions of dollars preparing for a terrorist attack, but relatively little preparing for the attack of a disease, which could be far more deadly and far more damaging economically, politically and socially. This is frankly difficult to understand, and dangerously short-sighted."

Ghebreyesus criticized those that use epidemics to forward political agendas, and also warned against prejudice.

"The greatest enemy we face is not the coronavirus itself - it is the stigma that turns us against each other. We must stop stigma and hate," he said. "Too much has been written and said about my praise for China. I have given credit where it's due and I will continue to do that, as I would for any country that fights an outbreak aggressively at its source to protect its own people and the world, even at great cost to itself."

He added: "It's easy to blame. It's easy to politicize. It's harder to tackle a problem together, and find solutions together. We will all learn lessons from this COVID-19 outbreak. But now is not the time for recriminations or politicization."

Ghebreyesus said the WHO is worried about the level of misinformation online regarding the virus, and confirmed that the organization has been working with major tech companies including Facebook, Youtube, Google, Tencent and Tiktok to ensure that credible health information and advice is promoted on the web.

He also called on governments to improve coordination in epidemic preparedness and response.

"It is not a job for the health minister alone," he said. "It takes a whole-of-government approach.

But that approach must be coherent and coordinated, guided by evidence and public health priorities. In many countries, measures have been taken by one part of government without appropriate consultation with the health ministry, or consideration of the impact of those measures."

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