WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 12 June 2020
12 June 2020
Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.
WHO is a global organization, but we are also proud and active members of the cities and communities we live in.
Since the 20th of March, Geneva’s famous Jet d’Eau fountain has been switched off while the city was in lockdown.
Yesterday I had the enormous honour of re-starting the Jet d’Eau, as a symbol of the city reopening now that the number of cases has declined.
I’m deeply grateful to the city and canton of Geneva for their hospitality and support for WHO, and for illuminating the Jet d’Eau in blue in honour of WHO and the United Nations.
But although new cases here in Geneva are now in the single digits, we are continuing to see an escalating pandemic globally.
As the pandemic accelerates in low- and middle-income countries, WHO is especially concerned about its impact on people who already struggle to access health services – often women, children and adolescents.
The indirect effects of COVID-19 on these groups may be greater than the number of deaths due to the virus itself.
Because the pandemic has overwhelmed health systems in many places, women may have a heightened risk of dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
WHO has developed guidance for health facilities and community activities on maintaining essential services, including for women, newborns, children and adolescents.
This includes ensuring women and children can use services with appropriate infection prevention and control measures, and respectful maternal and newborn care.
WHO has also carefully investigated the risks of women transmitting COVID-19 to their babies during breastfeeding.
We know that children are at relatively low-risk of COVID-19, but are at high risk of numerous other diseases and conditions that breastfeeding prevents.
Based on the available evidence, WHO’s advice is that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risks of transmission of COVID-19.
Mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be encouraged to initiate and continue breastfeeding and not be separated from their infants, unless the mother is too unwell.
WHO has detailed information in our clinical guidance about how to breastfeed safely.
WHO is also concerned about the impact of the pandemic on adolescents and young people.
Early evidence suggests people in their teens and 20s are at greater risk of depression and anxiety, online harassment, physical and sexual violence and unintended pregnancies, while their ability to seek the services they need is reduced.
School and university closures can also have a dramatic impact on the ability of adolescents to access preventive services.
In some countries, more than one-third of adolescents with mental health conditions receive their mental health services exclusively at school.
Millions of children who are fed through school meal programmes also have reduced access to food.
Limited opportunities for physical activity, and increased use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs may have impacts on the long-term health of these young people.
To address these challenges, WHO has developed guidelines on maintaining essential services, which we have discussed before.
There are also many things people can do to take care of their own health, like staying active, eating a nutritious diet and limiting their alcohol intake.
New products, information and technologies are changing how health services are delivered.
Increasingly, some medicines and tests can be safely obtained over-the-counter at pharmacies, or can be prescribed by doctors online and delivered to people’s homes.
WHO has developed guidance on self-care interventions for health which can be rapidly introduced in countries to save and improve lives.
For example, providing women and girls with self-injectable contraception can greatly reduce the burden of unintended pregnancies.
Access to treatment for people living with HIV, and medicines for other health conditions that people can self-manage, can reduce the burden on over-stretched health systems, while meeting the health needs and rights of individuals.
Self-care interventions enable more people to obtain the health services they need during the pandemic, when and where they need them.
It’s our collective responsibility to ensure these interventions are available and accessible to all people who need them.
To talk more about the impact of COVID-19 on women, children and adolescents, today I’m honoured to be joined by four distinguished guests:
Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund;
Gabriela Cuevas Barron, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union;
Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth;
And Mary-Ann Etiebet, the Executive Director of Merck for Mothers.
I’d like now to give the floor to my sister Natalia.