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WHO Officially Labels COVID-19 Outbreak a Pandemic
By Rajaneesh K. Gopinath, Ph.D.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has eventually confirmed what epidemiologists have been warning us of for quite some time now. Following the rapid spread of the Wuhan coronavirus in more than 100 countries in the past two weeks, today, the WHO has officially confirmed COVID-19 as a global pandemic. On Wednesday, at the daily briefing held in Geneva, the Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, with 4,291 fatalities. He acknowledged that the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and affected countries are anticipated to climb even higher in the days to come.
By WHO’s definition, a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease but it guarded itself against using the term to avoid a scenario where countries might panic and shrink their efforts of containment. In fact, the last time they labeled any outbreak as a pandemic was in 2009 for Swine flu (H1N1). “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” said Ghebreyesus. “It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death” he added.
Alarming Levels of Inaction
However, after assessing this outbreak, the organization is not only deeply concerned about the alarming rate of spread and severity of the disease, but also the alarming levels of inaction by some countries. When asked which countries are underperforming, executive director, Dr. Michael J. Ryan took over and said: “You know who you are,”. He then added that his organization would not like to criticize the member states in public, but rather would constructively work with them to improve measures that they feel could be more aggressive or comprehensive.
Nonetheless, he prefers to see more of some healthy behaviors. He was especially critical of the lack of updated screening procedures and surveillance regimes that still link diagnostic testing with a travel history to China. There are a few countries where the diagnostic criteria require people to be completely symptomatic and over a certain age limit to qualify for tests. “Certainly diagnostic testing algorithms that only tests a small proportion of people who are likely to have COVID-19 isn’t the way forward in this epidemic (pandemic),” said Ryan.
Some countries have not gotten necessary measures in place to stop infections transmitting in a hospital setting. “We must protect our frontline hospital workers,” said Ryan. Other countries have been too willing to give up on contact tracing at a very early stage and he urged them to persist with that measure to try and suppress the disease. Similarly, while some countries have been poor in communicating with their population leading to confusion, some others have struggled for coordination between their agencies and many sectors of the government.
He emphasized that epidemics are a stress test for every component of the healthcare system and it tests the resilience of governing bodies. “In many cases, what we are witnessing, across society, is a lack of resilience” he added. Sadly he opines that if most countries are evaluated with the lists the WHO has given them, none would score a 100 percent right now. He is also quick to add that the WHO is not 100 percent either. “So, everyone has to get on and get better at what we do” he concluded.
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