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Do not waste second chance, warns WHO chief

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | | Updated: 2020-03-26 04:10
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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (center). [Photo/Agencies]

World still has a chance to defeat virus pandemic

The chief of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday that the world has squandered the first window of opportunity to defeat COVID-19 in the past two months and should not squander the second one now.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world has overcome many pandemics and crises before and will overcome this one, too.

"The question is how large a price we will pay," he told a virtual news conference from Geneva.

Tedros said how many more lives will be lost will be determined by the decisions people make and the actions they take. According to the WHO, more than 16,000 people have so far died of COVID-19.

He acknowledged that the unprecedented measures taken by many countries have come at significant social and economic cost, such as closing schools and businesses, cancelling sporting events and asking people to stay home.

Some of these countries are now trying to assess when and how they will be able to ease these measures. "The answer depends on what countries do while these population-wide measures are in place," said the WHO chief.

China, which has shown such success in containing the virus, is easing measures in many cities, including a partial lifting of lockdown in Wuhan on Apr 8. Meanwhile, United States President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he wants the country to open up by Easter, which falls on Apr 12 this year.

Tedros reiterated that asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems, but the measures on their own will not extinguish epidemics.

"We call on all countries who have introduced so-called 'lockdown' measures to use this time to attack the coronavirus," he said. "You have created a second window of opportunity."

He listed measures that countries should take during the second window of opportunity, such as expanding, training and deploying healthcare and public health workforce; implementing a system to find every suspected case at community level; ramping up the production, capacity and availability of testing; identifying, adapting and equipping facilities to treat and isolate patients; developing a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts; and refocusing the whole of government on suppressing and controlling COVID-19.

"These measures are the best way to suppress and stop transmission, so that when restrictions are lifted, the coronavirus doesn't resurge," Tedros said.

He warned that the last thing any country needs is to open schools and businesses, only to be forced to close them again because of a resurgence.

"Aggressive measures to find, isolate, test, treat and trace are not only the best and fastest way out of extreme social and economic restrictions, they're also the best way to prevent them," he said.

"I think we squandered the first window of opportunity," Tedros said, referring to WHO's repeated stern warnings in the past two months that the window of opportunity was narrowing. He stressed that people should not squander the second window of opportunity now.

Leaders of G20 nations, which played a vital role during the 2008-09 global financial crisis, will convene for a teleconference on Thursday to discuss the international response to the COVID-19 crisis.

China, which has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic after taking draconian measures for the past two months, has dramatically ramped up its production of medical supplies for the rest of the world.

China has sent medical teams to countries such as Italy and Spain and has held some 20 videoconferences attended by more than 100 countries to share experiences. Group, a Chinese provider of travel services, announced on Wednesday that it is donating 1 million surgical masks to 10 countries including Italy, South Korea, Japan, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Serbia and Australia.

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