“It seems that almost every day we reach a new and grim record”, said Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, addressing journalists on Monday at the UN health agency’s latest media briefing.
Some countries continue to see a rapid increase in the number of cases and deaths. Others that had successfully suppressed transmission, are now seeing an upswing as they reopen their economies.
All countries are facing a delicate balance between protecting their people while minimizing the social and economic damage. “It is not a choice between lives and livelihoods,” he said. “Countries can do both”. They must be “careful and creative” in finding solutions so that people stay safe while getting on with their lives.
He also urged countries to double-down on the fundamental public health measures that are known to limit spread: finding and testing suspected cases, isolating and caring for the sick, tracing and quarantining contacts, and protecting health workers. These measures can only be effective if each person follows recommendations for physical distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing.
‘Much-needed’ reason to celebrate
Meanwhile, the world continues to learn about how best to treat the sick.
While data are preliminary, Dr. Tedros said the recent finding that the commonly-available steroid dexamethasone has a life-saving potential for critically ill COVID-19 patients “gave us a much-needed reason to celebrate”. The next challenge is to increase production, and then quickly and equitably distribute dexamethasone worldwide, focusing on where it is needed most.
Demand has already surged following trials in the United Kingdom, he said. Fortunately, dexamethasone is an inexpensive drug and many manufacturers worldwide can likely accelerate production.
Guided by solidarity
The agency chief said Governments must be guided by solidarity in working together to ensure that supplies are prioritized for countries that have large numbers of critically ill patients, and that supplies of the drug remain available to treat other diseases for which it is needed. Transparency and constant monitoring will be key to ensuring that needs dictate supplies, rather than means, and that suppliers are able to guarantee quality.
There is no evidence that dexamethasone works for patients who are only mildly affected, or as a preventative measure, he cautioned.
More broadly, WHO continues to support countries with essential supplies of personal protective equipment and laboratory diagnostics. So far, 48 countries had made requests for supplies through the WHO COVID-19 supply portal.
WHO is shipping 140 million items of equipment to 135 countries, as well as 14,000 oxygen concentrators and millions of test kits.
Health is no ‘luxury item’
A recent WHO survey to assess the impact of COVID-19 on essential health services found that more than half of the 82 countries that responded have been forced to limit or suspend at least one service delivery platform, such as outpatient or inpatient services, or community-based care.
Almost three quarters reported that dental and rehabilitation services have been partially or entirely disrupted. Two-thirds reported disruptions to routine immunizations, diagnosis and treatment for non-communicable diseases, while more than half of respondents reported disruptions to services for sick children.
“The world is learning the hard way that health is not a luxury item”, he said. “It is the cornerstone of security, stability and prosperity”. He called on countries to invest in strong domestic health systems and to make universal health coverage a priority. “It’s not a question of whether countries can afford to do this”, he said, but rather, “whether they can afford not to”.
World Government Summit
Dr. Tedros, speaking earlier in the day at the World Government Summit Virtual Health Forum, drove home the point about ensuring solidarity, stressing that world is paying the price for its lack of preparedness to combat the virus, with efforts hobbled by politicization.