Apr. 21, 2020


Virtual press conference on COVID-19 outbreak in the Western Pacific Region: 21 April 2020

21 April 2020

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When I briefed you three weeks ago, I stressed that the pandemic is far from over in Asia and the Pacific. This is going to be a long battle.

The virus is now in 22 countries and areas in our Region. Some have limited health care capacity, and others—such as Japan—are experiencing an increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

This is not the time to relax. Instead, we need to ready ourselves for a new way of living for the foreseeable future.

As Dr Huong mentioned, over 5,600 people have lost their lives among more than 130,000 with confirmed COVID-19 infection in our Region. I once worked in an ER. And I know that these are more than just numbers. Countless others have lost their jobs and means of supporting themselves and their families. This has caused grief and hardship for millions, and I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy for all those who have lost loved ones and who are going through difficult times.

I also want to take this opportunity to express our deep gratitude to those whose jobs are deemed essential and who are working around the clock to keep food available and maintain lifelines and health services. Thank you very much.

Every week, we connect health leaders across the Region in a teleconference. Last week, Ministers of Health themselves came together to stand in solidarity to fight COVID-19.

Ministers acknowledged that while we have countries at different stages of the epidemic, as long as the new coronavirus is circulating, no country is safe from potentially overwhelming outbreaks. We’re in this together, and we can only get out of this together, and we particularly need to support countries that have limited capacity.

Many countries have introduced periods of ‘lock down’ and other measures. They have proven effective in slowing and reducing transmission and easing the burden on overstretched health systems, and today we appear not to have wide-spread community transmission in our Region.

But they have also upended millions of people’s lives and had major economic impacts.

Now, governments in this Region are making extremely complex decisions about introducing, enhancing, easing or lifting lockdowns and physical distancing measures.

As we move forward in this difficult time, our lives, our health systems and approaches to stopping transmission must continue to adapt and evolve, along with the epidemic. At least until a vaccine or very effective treatment is found, this process will need to become our “new normal”.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to doing this. But WHO strongly urges that decisions be guided by public health principles. The lifting of lockdowns and other measures needs to be done gradually. I’m sure nobody wants to see another spike in cases by rushing to lift restrictions too soon.

If restrictions are relaxed or lifted before strong systems are in place to identify, isolate and care for the sick, and trace and quarantine their contacts, this will likely lead to a resurgence of disease.

Individuals and society need to be ready for a new way of living that strikes the right balance between measures to keep the virus in check, and enable vital parts of our economies and societies to function once more.

For each citizen, this means accepting responsibility for protecting yourself, your family and community by physically distancing in the community, frequently cleaning your hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying at home and away from others when you feel sick.

For the private sector, this means adopting new ways of working, such as enabling staff to work from home where possible, and other measures to reduce the risk of infection in the workplace.

For governments, this means preparing for the worst—having systems that work in every corner of the country to detect and care for people, in case of large-scale community transmission.

Another important job for the government, under this “new normal” is to bring back and sustain regular health services.

One example is immunization. Over the past three decades, vaccines have made the Western Pacific Region healthier and safer from diseases like polio, measles, rubella and hepatitis B. But if vaccination rates go down, infectious diseases come back.

In the past year, we’ve had cases of polio in the Philippines, Malaysia and China. And there were outbreaks of measles in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Viet Nam, Hong Kong SAR, New Zealand, Samoa and other Pacific island countries.

If we allow COVID-19 to disrupt immunization programmes, the Region could face new crises at a time when health systems are already strained.

From Friday, we will mark World Immunization Week. On this occasion, WHO is calling on countries across Asia and the Pacific to continue immunization services during the COVID-19 pandemic, where it’s feasible and with appropriate infection control.

Likewise, we’re conscious that the health of millions of people in this Region depends on continued access to care and treatment for tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and many other acute and chronic conditions. We cannot let the COVID-19 response put their lives at risk by compromising these services.

WHO is working day and night to support countries in the response and in this transition. We share information with governments and their people; we advise on how to find and isolate cases, trace and quarantine their contacts so that the epidemic can be controlled and we can save as many lives as possible; and we provide supplies and equipment.

We know we’re in this together, for the long run, and we’re committed to working with every country to find their new way of living that will protect people’s health, economies and societies.

This is a Region with a strong sense of community and a strong culture of supporting the vulnerable. This is the key to getting through this. We need everyone—from food sellers, to teachers, to prime ministers—to remain focused and engaged. That requires solidarity, unity, vigilance and patience. It requires working together and supporting each other.

We too would like to see difficult measures lifted as soon as it’s safe to do so. We look forward to the day when we can once again hug our friends, go to birthday parties, and enjoy community events.

But for now, we appeal to people in the Western Pacific to play their part in building a new way of life in which everybody contributes to containing and suppressing the virus, protecting the vulnerable, and making life as safe and liveable as possible.