Africa: WHO Director-General's Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing On Covid-19 - 3 August 2020

press release

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

On Friday, the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 met and reviewed the current pandemic.

It was a sobering moment coming six months on from when the Committee advised, and I agreed, that the outbreak constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

At the time, 30 January, there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths outside of China.

When the Committee met three months ago, three million cases of COVID-19 had been reported to WHO, and more than 200,000 deaths.

Since then, the number of cases has increased more than fivefold to 17.5 million, and the number of deaths has more than tripled, to 680,000.

In addition to the direct toll COVID-19 is having, the Committee noted the health impact that disrupted services are having on a range of other diseases.

That compounds what we already know about reduced immunisation coverage, cancer screening and care, and mental health services.

A survey of responses from 103 countries between mid May and early July found that 67 percent of countries report disruption in family planning and contraception services.

More than half of countries reported disruption in antenatal care services and more than a third of countries reported disruption in child birth services.

On top of the health impact, we have seen the damage COVID-19 has caused socially, economically and politically.

The Committee put forward a number of recommendations for countries to continue to implement to bring the virus under control.

These range from sharing best practice, to enhancing political commitment and leadership for national strategies and localized response activities driven by science, data, and experience.

We know from serology studies that most people remain susceptible to this virus, even in areas that have experienced severe outbreaks.

Over the past week we've seen several countries that appeared as though they were past the worst now contending with fresh spikes in cases.

However, we've also seen how some countries, regions or localities that had a high number of cases are now bringing the outbreak under control.

It's not easy, of course. Strict measures may cause their own problems for delivery of essential health services, the economy and societies overall.

The Committee acknowledged that Member States have tough choices to make to turn the epidemic around.

But they were also clear that when leaders step up and work intensely with their populations, this disease can be brought under control.

We learn every day about this virus and I'm pleased that the world has made progress in identifying treatments that can help people with the most serious forms of COVID-19 recover.

The Committee recommended that countries engage in the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, participate in relevant clinical trials, and prepare for safe and effective therapeutics and vaccine introduction.

A number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection.

However, there's no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.

For now, stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control.

Testing, isolating and treating patients, and tracing and quarantining their contacts. Do it all.

Inform, empower and listen to communities. Do it all.

For individuals, it's about keeping physical distance, wearing a mask, cleaning hands regularly and coughing safely away from others. Do it all.

The message to people and governments is clear: do it all.

And when it's under control, keep going!

Keep strengthening the health system.

Keep improving surveillance, contact tracing and ensure disrupted health services are restarted as quickly as possible.

Keep safeguards and monitoring in place, because lifting restrictions too quickly can lead to a resurgence.

Keep investing in the workforce and communicating and engaging communities.

We have seen around the world, that it's never too late to turn this pandemic around.

If we act together today, we can save lives, we can save livelihoods if we do it all together.

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This week, we're also launching a mask challenge with partners from around the world and we're encouraging people to send in photos of themselves wearing a mask.

As well as being one of the key tools to stop the virus, the mask has come to represent solidarity.

Like the Safe Hands and Healthy-at-home challenges, we're going to be spreading further positive messages about how everyone has a role to play in breaking chains of transmission.

If you're a health worker, a frontline worker, wherever you are - show us your solidarity in following national guidelines and safely wearing a mask - whether caring for patients or loved ones, riding on public transport to work, or picking up essential supplies.

As well as hand sanitizer, I carry a mask with me all the time and use it when I'm in places where there are crowds.

By wearing a mask, you're sending a powerful message to those around you that we are all in this together.

Wear a mask when appropriate, keep your physical distance from others and avoid crowded places, observe coughing etiquette, clean your hands frequently and you'll be protecting yourself and others.

Do it all!

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One of the areas that we have been continuing to study is the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The WHO advance team that travelled to China has now concluded their mission to lay the groundwork for further joint efforts to identify the virus origins.

As a result of these efforts, WHO and Chinese experts have drafted the Terms of Reference for the studies and programme of work for an international team, led by WHO.

The international team will include leading scientists and researchers from China and around the world.

Epidemiological studies will begin in Wuhan to identify the potential source of infection of the early cases.

Evidence and hypotheses generated through this work will lay the ground for further, longer-term studies.

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Finally, this week is breastfeeding awareness week. As we have seen again and again, standard public health measures are often the most effective and we are reiterating the importance of breastfeeding, which has lifesaving benefits for babies and families.

At the time of COVID-19, especially when there is disruption to health services; WHO recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be encouraged, the same as all other mothers, to initiate or continue to breastfeed.

Mothers should be counselled that the many, many benefits of breastfeeding for newborn babies and children substantially outweigh the potential risks for COVID-19 infection.

Mother and infant should be helped to remain together while rooming-in throughout the day and night and to practise skin-to-skin contact, including kangaroo mothercare, especially immediately after birth and during establishment of breastfeeding, whether they or their infants have suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

I thank you.

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