The World Health Organisation (WHO) says it understands that countries face difficult decisions and trying times in dealing with the COVID-19 global outbreak, but it has made a plea to the world to work in solidarity to fight the pandemic.

In an online press conference held last night (Wednesday, 18 March), Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, warned countries not to assume that they won’t be affected, but to rather prepare for when they are.

He stressed the importance of physical distancing and cancellation of large gatherings as a necessary precautionary measure. WHO praised South Africa as one of many countries that have adopted stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus and said it was of utmost importance to ensure that medical facilities don’t become overcrowded.

Scientists who, this week, started the first vaccine trials only 60 days after the outbreak, were commended by WHO and praised for working together across continents to find a cure.

Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus.

The Coronavirus has been recorded in more than 30 African countries with about 600 people infected. Dr Michael J Ryan, Executive Director of WHO, said countries in Africa were “resilient” in their approach as most of them have been dealing with serious diseases like HIV/Aids and catastrophic natural disasters for years. He did, however, request that strict guidelines be followed when it comes to large gatherings, which need to be avoided at all costs.

Listen to the press conference here.

Ghebreyesus supported this sentiment and said 233 cases and 4 deaths were reported in Sub- Saharan Africa, which was low, but that low detection could have been a factor.

“We need to prepare for the worst. The virus accelerates after a specific tipping point. You need to do the testing, isolate patients and cut the spread. Mass gatherings should be avoided because you need to expect the worst,” he warned.

If facilities become overcrowded, WHO has published information on how to provide home care effectively and urged people to use their website to obtain info.

Responding to a question on why the death rate was so variable across Europe, Ryan explained that Italy, for example, had higher mortality measured against most other countries, which only stood between one and two percent.

Ryan explained that Italy, for example, experienced the first wave of high transmissions with a high number of deaths recorded three to four weeks after the illness begun. Age profiles could have influenced the mortality rate as Mediterranean people seem to live longer and the high prevalence of older people led to more deaths. The medical fraternity was still under pressure with high volumes of people being treated in intensive care units.

Factors like aggressive testing measures also had an impact on statistics. Ryan cited Germany as an example where a combination of good communication and an aggressive testing process led to the containment of their outbreak leading to low mortality rates.

Ryan stressed that once patient numbers increased to a level where too much strain was placed on the health care system, the standard of care dropped.

WHO warned against comparing mortality rates because the virus was unpredictable and in areas like South Africa factors like HIV will impact the number of deaths differently. It was difficult to determine what the impact was going to be.

In South Korea, almost 20% of deaths occurred in persons under 60 years of age, debunking the belief that older people are of a higher risk of dying. While children are very susceptible to any virus, the number of reported cases in children was low with only death recorded in China.

During the press briefing, WHO confirmed that some countries experienced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and have resorted to self-manufacturing. Sophisticated equipment like ventilators and oxygen concentrators would be far more difficult to find but the supply chain was also being addressed.

The United NationsWorld Food ProgrammeUnicef and other agencies are currently part of the teams assisting countries in having access to supplies worldwide. The public was urged not to bulk-buy as fellow citizens would be disadvantaged.

Dr. Maria von Kerkhove said it was vital that health workers didn’t run out of PPE and that the UN played a pivotal role to ensure this.

She concluded by urging the world to support one another and especially the elderly. “We will get through this together,” she said.

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