Aug. 21, 2020

WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 21 August 2020


21 August 2020
Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

I would like to begin today’s briefing with an update on the Ebola outbreak in the Equateur province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The outbreak continues to increase and to spread geographically. Yesterday, the 100th case was reported, with 43 deaths in 11 health zones across the province.

There is currently a delay of about 5 days from the onset of symptoms to when an alert about a suspected case is raised.

This is concerning, because the longer a patient goes without treatment, the lower their chances of survival, and the longer the virus can spread unseen in communities.

The situation has been further complicated by a strike by health workers, which is affecting activities including vaccination and safe burials.

DRC has the best-trained workforce in the world for Ebola. This situation needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.

WHO and our partners are working intensively in communities to find cases and shorten the delay.

We’re also supporting the government of DRC to take a stronger role in the response, and to prepare areas that have not been affected so far.

There continues to be an urgent need for increased human resources and logistics capacity to support an effective response across an ever-expanding geographical area, and to help health officials identify cases earlier.

The government of DRC has developed a plan that needs about US$40 million. We urge partners to support this plan.

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Now, to COVID-19.

Last month my colleague Dr Maria van Kerkhove contacted a group called Long COVID SOS, representing patients with long-term effects from COVID-19 infection.

This afternoon I had the privilege of speaking with them. They told us about their experience, and the ongoing challenges they face. These patients want three things: recognition, rehabilitation and research.

Recognition of their disease, appropriate rehabilitation services, and more research to be done into the long-term effects of this new illness.

Although we have learned so much about this disease, we only have less than 8 months of experience to draw on. We still know relatively little about the long-term effects.

My message to these patients was: we hear you loud and clear, and we are committed to working with countries to ensure you receive the services you need, and to advancing research to serve you better.

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Globally, there are now more than 22 million reported cases of COVID-19, and 780,000 deaths.

But it’s not just the numbers of cases and deaths that matter. In many countries, the number of patients who need hospitalization and advanced care remains high, putting huge pressure on health systems and affecting the provision of services for other health needs.

Several countries around the world are now experiencing fresh outbreaks after a long period with little or no transmission.

These countries are a cautionary tale for those that are now seeing a downward trend in cases.

Progress does not mean victory.

The fact remains that most people remain susceptible to this virus.

That’s why it’s vital that countries are able to quickly identify and prevent clusters, to prevent community transmission and the possibility of new restrictions.

No country can just ride this out until we have a vaccine.

A vaccine will be a vital tool, and we hope that we will have one as soon as possible.

But there’s no guarantee that we will, and even if we do have a vaccine, it won’t end the pandemic on its own.

We must all learn to control and manage this virus using the tools we have now, and to make the adjustments to our daily lives that are needed to keep ourselves and each other safe.

So-called lockdowns enabled many countries to suppress transmission and take the pressure off their health systems.

But lockdowns are not a long-term solution for any country.

We do not need to choose between lives and livelihoods, or between health and the economy. That’s a false choice.

On the contrary, the pandemic is a reminder that health and the economy are inseparable.

WHO is committed to working with all countries to move into a new stage of opening their economies, societies, schools and businesses safely.

To do that, every single person must be involved. Every single person can make a difference. Every person, family, community and nation must make their own decisions, based on the level of risk where they live.

That means every person and family has a responsibility to know the level of transmission locally, and to understand what they can do to protect themselves and others.

At the same time, we will not – we cannot – go back to the way things were.

Throughout history, outbreaks and pandemics have changed economies and societies. This one will be no different.

In particular, the pandemic has given new impetus to the need to accelerate efforts to respond to climate change.

The pandemic has given us a glimpse of our world as it could be: cleaner skies and rivers.

Building back better means building back greener.

In May, WHO published our “Manifesto for a Healthy and Green Recovery”, with 6 policy prescriptions for protecting nature, investing in water and sanitation, promoting healthy food systems, transitioning to renewable energy, building liveable cities, and stopping subsidies on fossil fuels.

In July we added “actionables” for each of these policy prescriptions, providing 81 concrete steps for policy-makers to build a healthier, fairer, greener world.

Since then, over 40 million health professionals from 90 countries have sent a letter to G20 leaders to call for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19.

And we have seen many examples of countries acting to protect lives, livelihoods and the planet on which they depend.

Nairobi, Kenya is improving parks, adding urban forests, building more sidewalks and improving drainage.

Pakistan has set up a “green stimulus” scheme, offering labourers who are out of work as a result of lockdown a chance to earn money by planting trees.

In the United Kingdom, the use of coal, the most polluting form of energy, fell to its lowest level in 250 years.

Spain is becoming one of the world's fastest decarbonizing nations, with 7 of the country’s 15 coal-fired power stations recently closed.

Portugal has announced it will become coal-free by next year.

Chile has committed to reducing air pollution and black carbon.

Great cities such as Paris have committed to becoming “15 minute cities”, where every service can be easily reached by foot or bike, reducing air pollution and climate change.

Hardship is always an opportunity to learn, to grow and to change.

COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century health crisis. But it also gives us a once-in-a-century opportunity to shape the world our children will inherit – the word we want.

I thank you.