Geneva—The World Health Organization on Friday urged countries hit by serious coronavirus outbreaks to “wake up” to the realities on the ground instead of bickering, and to “take control”.
“People need to wake up. The data is not lying. The situation on the ground is not lying,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told journalists at a briefing hosted by the UN correspondents’ association in Geneva.
Asked about the dire situations in nations like Brazil and Mexico, which have been moving away from lockdowns despite ballooning numbers of infections and deaths, Ryan cautioned that “too many countries are ignoring what the data is telling them”.
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“There are good economic reasons that the countries need to bring their economies back online,” he said.
“It’s understandable, but you can’t ignore the problem either. The problem will not magically go away.”
While he acknowledged that countries facing explosive outbreaks had some “pretty stark choices” ahead, he insisted that “it is never too late in an epidemic to take control.”
The United States, the world’s largest economy, broke its record for new cases for the third day in a row Friday, with more than 57,000 infections in 24 hours. It’s expected to record its three millionth infection next week, with cases rising in the south and west particularly.
Meanwhile, the WHO has updated its account of the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis to say it was alerted by its own office in China, and not by China itself, to the first pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
The UN health body has been accused by US President Donald Trump of failing to provide the information needed to stem the pandemic and of being complacent towards Beijing, charges it denies.
On April 9, WHO published an initial timeline of its communications, partly in response to criticism of its early response to the outbreak that has now claimed more than 521,000 lives worldwide.
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In that chronology, WHO had said only that the Wuhan municipal health commission in the province of Hubei had on December 31 reported cases of pneumonia. The UN health agency did not however specify who had notified it.
WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference on April 20 the first report had come from China, without specifying whether the report had been sent by Chinese authorities or another source.
But a new chronology, published this week by the Geneva-based institution, offers a more detailed version of events.
It indicates that it was the WHO office in China that on December 31 notified its regional point of contact of a case of “viral pneumonia” after having found a declaration for the media on a Wuhan health commission website on the issue.
The same day, WHO’s epidemic information service picked up another news report transmitted by the international epidemiological surveillance network ProMed -- based in the United States -- about the same group of cases of pneumonia from unknown causes in Wuhan.
After this, WHO asked the Chinese authorities on two occasions, on January 1 and January 2, for information about these cases, which they provided on January 3.
READ: WHO says first alerted to virus by its office, not China
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told a press conference on Friday that countries have 24-48 hours to officially verify an event and provide the agency with additional information about the nature or cause of an event.
Ryan added that the Chinese authorities immediately contacted WHO’s as soon as the agency asked to verify the report.
Touching almost every country on Earth since it emerged in China late last year, the coronavirus has hit at least 10.8 million people and killed 521,000 worldwide.
The Americas are the hardest-hit region, with most cases and deaths registered in the United States, and with numbers skyrocketing in a several countries in Latin America.
‘Worst case scenario’
Instead of placing an entire nation under lockdown, Ryan suggested that countries could try to break down the problem.
It could be possible to loosen restrictions in areas with lower transmission rates and still contain the outbreak through things like physical distancing, hand-washing, testing, isolating cases and contact tracing.
But in areas where the virus is spreading uncontrollably, strict measures could be unavoidable, he said.
“If countries proceed with opening up without the capacity to cope with the likely caseload, then you end up in a worst-case scenario,” Ryan warned.
“If the health system stops coping, more people will die.”
He said there could be places in Mexico and in other countries “where it may be important to slow down or to reverse some of the measures aimed at opening up society.”
“It is looking at: can you control transmission by any other means other than transmission? If you can’t, you may not have an alternative” to lockdown.
In the case of Brazil, which counts almost 1.5 million confirmed cases, second only to the United States, Ryan meanwhile said that the numbers had “stabilised”, meaning they are no longer rising as steeply, but they are “still rising”.
He also stressed that despite “fighting a large number of cases for a long time now,” Brazil’s hospitals and intensive care units had not yet been overwhelmed.
“We want to see them intensify efforts and we want to see more progress,” he said, “but we also have to pay credit to the health system in Brazil for its capacity to cope for what has been a long battle against this virus.”