Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, WHO has been reluctant to classify it as a pandemic spreading to more than one continent. There was a window of opportunity, though steadily narrowing, to contain the spread of the virus. Today WHO changed its mind.
“In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon (11 March), a crucial day that will be remembered.
There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals.
“In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” he warned. “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” he concluded. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. 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.”
This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. Adding words of hope, he said that “we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time”.
According to WHO, of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 percent of cases are in just four countries, and two of those – China and the Republic of Korea – have significantly declining epidemics. 81 countries have not reported any cases, and 57 countries have reported 10 cases or less.
“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.”
If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission. Clusters are limited in time and geographic location. Community transmission is a country experiencing larger outbreaks of local transmission.
Only two days ago, he mentioned a number of countries demonstrating that containment measures work. South Korea for example has increased efforts to identify all cases and contacts, including drive-through temperature testing to widen the net and catch cases that might otherwise be missed. Today, he seemed to deplore that many countries have not acted in time and paid attention to his warnings.
“I have said from the beginning that countries must take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach, built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimize impact. I remind all countries that we are calling on you to activate and scale up your emergency response mechanisms.”
He might have had EU and its member states in mind when issuing his warnings. The European Commission repeated in the beginning of the outbreak of the coronavirus that it was the competency of the member states to contain the spread of the virus and it took some time for it to realize that the evolving crisis requires effective coordination on EU level.
A moment of truth seems to have occurred today. In a joint statement, Commission President von der Leyen and Italian Prime-Minister Conte stated that the coronavirus is a Global and European crisis that requires a strong coordinated European response and solidarity.
The number infected people in Italy exceeded today 12,000 and the death toll has increased to more than 800. “Italy is currently at the forefront in the battle to contain the diffusion of the virus in Europe and faces immediate health, social and economic consequences. Actions taken by every member state have an impact on the rest of the EU.”
At yesterday’s video-meeting of the European Council, a €7,5 billion investment liquidity from pre-financing of the structural funds was announced to support the member states. This money would otherwise have been lost to them. Daily video-meetings with the health and interior ministers will take place to strengthen the coordination of measures.