The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that in the next few days the world will reach one million confirmed cases of COVID-19.
WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that over the past five weeks, the world has witnessed a near exponential growth in the number of new cases, reaching almost every country, territory and area.
"The number of deaths has more than doubled in the past week. In the next few days we will reach one million confirmed cases, and 50 000 deaths," Ghebreyesus said.
As the world enters the fourth month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghebreyesus said he was deeply concerned about the rapid escalation and global spread of infection.
While relatively lower numbers of confirmed cases have been reported from Africa, and from Central and South America, the organisation has realised that COVID-19 could have serious social, economic and political consequences for these regions.
"It is critical to ensure these countries are well equipped to detect, test, isolate and treat cases, and identify contacts. I am encouraged to see that this is occurring in many countries, despite limited resources.
"Many countries are asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement, which can help to limit transmission of the virus, but can have unintended consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable people," Ghebreyesus said.
Governments called to put social welfare measures
Ghebreyesus said he has called on governments to put in place social welfare measures to ensure vulnerable people have food and other life essentials during this crisis.
In India, Prime Minister Modi has announced a $24 billion package, including free food rations for 800 million disadvantaged people, cash transfers to 204 million poor women and free cooking gas for 80 million households for the next three months.
Ghebreyesus, however, acknowledged that many developing countries will struggle to implement social welfare programs of this nature.
"For those countries, debt relief is essential to enable them to take care of their people and avoid economic collapse. This is a call from WHO, the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] - - debt relief for developing countries.
"Three months ago, we knew almost nothing about this virus. Collectively, we have learned an enormous amount. And every day, we learn more. WHO is committed to serving all people everywhere with the best evidence to protect their health," Ghebreyesus said.
WHO develops guidance based on the totality of evidence collected from around the world and every day its staff talk to thousands of experts around the world to collect and distil that evidence and experience.
"We constantly review and update our guidance as we learn more, and we are working to adapt it for specific contexts. For example, we recommend handwashing and physical distancing, but we also recognise this can be a practical challenge for those who lack access to clean water, or who live in cramped conditions.
"Together with Unicef and the International Federation of the Red Cross, we've published new guidance for improving access to handwashing. The guidance recommends that countries set up handwashing stations at the entrance to public buildings, offices, bus stops and train stations.
"We're also working hard with researchers all over the world to generate the evidence about which medicines are most effective for treating COVID-19. There has been an extraordinary response to our call for countries to join the Solidarity Trial, which is comparing four drugs and drug combinations," Ghebreyesus said.
So far, 74 countries have either joined the trial or are in the process of joining and more than 200 patients have been randomly assigned to one of the study arms.
"Each new patient who joins the trial gets us one step closer to knowing which drugs work. We're also continuing to study the evidence about the use of masks."
Personal Protective Equipment for health workers
WHO's priority is for frontline health workers to access essential personal protective equipment (PPE), including medical masks and respirators.
"That's why we are continuing to work with governments and manufacturers to step up the production and distribution of personal protective equipment, including masks. There's an ongoing debate about the use of masks at the community level.
WHO recommends the use of medical masks for people who are sick and those caring for them.
However, in these circumstances, Ghebreyesus emphasised that masks are only effective when combined with other protective measures.