Aug. 18, 2020

Virtual press conference on COVID-19 in the Western Pacific Remarks by Dr Takeshi Kasai

18 August 2020
Good morning.

We are seven and a half months into the COVID-19 pandemic and, sadly, infections and deaths are accelerating in many parts of the world. There are now more than 21.5 million confirmed cases and over 760 000 people have died—each one an individual tragedy for their family and community.

In our Region, while the number of cases reported has been much smaller than other parts of the world, each country is facing a different situation.

And some countries that moved quickly to contain COVID-19 in the early months of the epidemic are now fighting new surges—in some cases, larger than their initial outbreaks.

I will ask my colleague, Dr Tamano Matsui, to provide an update on the key numbers in the Region.

Thank you, Tamano.

What we are observing is not simply a resurgence. We believe it’s a signial that we’ve entered a new phase of the pandemic in Asia Pacific.

In this phase, countries are increasingly able to minimize large scale disruptions to people’s lives and economies by combining early detection and rapid responses to emerging infections, and people sticking to the prevention measures that are part of the ‘new normal’.

The direction the epidemic now takes depends on the actions of governments and people across the Region.

Over the past month, with experts from across the Region, we have taken stock of the response, which has been guided by the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and public health emergencies, or APSED.

We see three lessons emerging:

First, the significant investments in health emergency preparedness made over several years in this Region have paid off. Countries have put to use the capacities and mechanisms built up over the years through APSED implementation to respond quickly. This is one of the reasons why this Region has comparatively low COVID-19 figures today. To prepare for the future, we need investment.

Second, while countries have much stronger capcity than they would have otherwise had, the sheer size of this pandemic is greater than we had imagined and more than we had prepared for—and we’ve realized that countries’ preparedness and response capacities need to be scalable, so they can get much bigger, or smaller and more targeted, as needed.

Third, we must continue to refine, learn and adjust our response in pursuit of the ‘new normal’, because COVID-19 will likely be with us for the foreseeable future.

Some of these refinements include greater targeting and earlier introduction of localized movement control measures and public health interventions. Approaches like this could be more effective and minimize social disruption and impact on economies.

We also have to continue to strengthen the capacity of health systems and public health to identify cases, isolate and treat them, and trace and quarantine their contacts.

We must plan and act to protect the vulnerable.

Most importantly, we have to continue encouraging everyone to maintain the behaviours that protect their health and that of their family members, colleagues and community.

As my colleague reported—the epidemic is changing: people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are increasingly driving its spread.

Many are unaware they’re infected—with very mild symptoms or none at all. This can result in them unknowingly passing on the virus to others.

This increases the risk of spillovers to the most vulnerable: the elderly, the sick, people in long-term care, people who live in densely-populated urban areas and under-served rural areas.

We must redouble efforts to stop the virus from moving into vulnerable communities.

We are encouraged to see many contries in the Region already adopting new tactics that help minimize the social and economic concequences of COVID-19 and show how we can cope with it for the foreseeable future:

Many are now detecting outbreaks earlier and responding to them faster—with more targeted interventions and agile approaches that bring back health, societies and economies at the same time.

Where rapid detection is coupled with robust contact tracing, clusters of infection are being controlled, even when those clusters are relatively big.

We also recognize that many countries have increased the capacity of their health systems, so that they can accommodate more patients and avoid the system being overwhelmed and triggering the need for radical measures.

Finally, in many countries, we’ve seen impressive changes in people’s behaviour, with mask-wearing, physical distancing and hand hygiene now part of daily life. We know it’s not easy to keep this up and that many people are tired, but we need people to continue making positive choices, protect themselves and their community.

But change is fragile and sometimes short-lived. Achieving and sustaining the ‘new normal’ everywhere will continue to be a serious challenge as long as the virus is circulating and we don’t have immunity to it.

But we can all make an active choice for a way of life that is safe and allows us to work and study.

If we make these choices, we can use more moderate control measures—avoiding blanket, nationwide lockdowns, extreme economic closures, and high rates of infection and death—and find a way to improve both health and the economy together.

COVID-19 is not just happening to us. After 7 months of the pandemic, we’re starting to see a way to restore health, societies and the economy together. We cannot do one without the other.

COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. We know it’s a long and difficult stretch, and we will face setbacks. But we must keep trying, learning and doing it together.

How we fare is up to each and every one of us. If we make the right choices every day, we will come out of this as safe and as strong as possible