Health and Healthcare Systems

6 steps every country must take now to prevent coronavirus deaths: WHO Director-General

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at today's COVID-19 briefing. Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing to update the public on the COVID-19 outbreak. Streamed live at 18.30 CET on Wednesday, 25 March.
  • The Director-General outlined six steps every country must take and tailor to its unique needs to fight the virus.

With more than a billion new people on lockdown this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) had a simple request: Don't waste this opportunity.

Physical distancing measures such as lockdowns only slow the virus' spread, WHO officials warned. They can't eradicate it. Cancelled events, closed schools and stay-at-home orders buy countries time to develop targeted measures to attack the virus.

Lockdowns have created a second window of opportunity, said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But as reported cases climbed above 450,000 this week, that window is closing.

"We have overcome many pandemics and crises before," said the Director-General. "We will overcome this one, too. The question is how large a price we will pay."

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"Already we have lost over 16,000 lives," he added. "We know we will lose more. How many more will be determined by the actions we take and the decisions we make now."

To that end, the Director-General outlined six steps that any country can take, regardless of its size or scenario, to fight the virus.

1. Expand, train and deploy your public health force.

2. Implement a system to find every suspected case.

3. Ramp up testing capacity and availability.

4. Identify and adapt key facilities you will use to treat and isolate patients.

5. Develop a clear plan to quarantine contacts.

6. Refocus the whole of government on suppression and containing COVID-19.

Many countries, such as the United States, have discussed lifting lockdown measures in an attempt to shore up the economy. For countries grappling with that decision, the Director-General explained that "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."

A targeted approach can avoid an "endless" cycle of lockdowns. "These measures are the best way to suppress and stop transmission, so that when restrictions are lifted, the coronavirus doesn’t resurge," said the Director General. "The last thing any country needs is to open schools and businesses, only to be forced to close them again because of a resurgence."

Additionally, no one solution is always a fit for every area in a country. China, officials pointed out, applied different lockdown measures in different areas of the country based on the virus' spread. Later, it gradually lifted restrictions. The country only recently eased lockdown orders in its hard-hit Hubei province. Wuhan still faces many restrictions.

WHO officials acknowledged that the agency's official recommendations to "test, test, test" every suspect case could seem overwhelming in areas where the virus had widespread community transmission.

Where there have been very large outbreaks, officials said, countries need to prioritize their tactics, but ensure that areas with low transmission rates are contained. “It’s overwhelming," said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead. "But there are things you can do."

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The Director-General stressed that 130 countries still had fewer than 100 cases. Even in countries like Italy, where the virus has overwhelmed health systems, not every area faces widespread infection.

India, newly locked-down and with just more than 600 cases, was well positioned to fight the virus and protect its 1.3 billion residents, said Michael J. Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. India, he noted, got rid of polio with targeted measures, breaking down what was needed village by village.

"There is a way out," he said.

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