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World Health Organization (WHO) declares coronavirus pandemic

Director general says his organization is ‘deeply concerned … by alarming levels of inaction’

The world is now in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic, the director general of the World Health Organization has said, as he expressed deep concern about “alarming levels of inaction” in the fight against the spread of the disease.

In the past two weeks, the number of cases outside China has increased 13-fold, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have lost their lives.

“Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospital,” Tedros said at a briefing in Geneva. “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the many cases, the many deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

The word pandemic should not be used lightly or carelessly, he said, nor should it be misused. “It doesn’t change what countries should do,” he said.

This pandemic was unlike any others in that it could be controlled, he said. The experience in China and South Korea, where the numbers of cases are falling, showed it was possible to turn things around. But many countries were not doing what was necessary.
“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” he said.

Ghebreyesus was keen to stress that it was not too late to control the outbreak. The majority of cases – 90% of the 118,000 – are in just four countries: Italy, Iran, South Korea and China. “We can’t say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he said. He called on all countries to detect, test, treat, isolate, track contacts and mobilize their people in response to the pandemic.

“Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity, some countries are struggling with a lack of resources, some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve,” he said.

Asked which countries were failing to do enough, he and WHO’s director of emergencies, Dr Michael Ryan, refused to be specific. “You know who you are,” said Ryan. The WHO would not criticize its member states in public. But, he said, it was not enough to limit testing to small numbers of people who fitted risk criteria that might be out of date – people over a certain age with a history of travel to China, for instance.

Some countries had not established sufficient capacity for isolating people, he said. Other countries were too willing to give up on contact tracing too soon, which could help slow the spread. Some countries were not communicating well with their people, giving them the information they need to keep themselves and others safe.

The WHO warning came as the death toll from the virus in Italy rose by 31% in 24 hours to 827, and the government there began considering imposing even tighter restrictions on daily life and announced billions of euros in financial relief to cushion against the economic shock. (The Guardian)

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice-president and two other cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. Iran reported another sharp rise in the number of deaths, by 62 to 354, behind only China and Italy.

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