Countries in lockdown should use time to fight virus: WHO

March 26, 2020 07:45
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged nations to find new cases and do everything to control the virus. Photo: Reuters

Countries that have locked down their populations to prevent the spread of coronavirus need to put a premium on finding new cases and doing everything they can “to suppress and control” the virus, the World Health Organization said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said US President Donald Trump had displayed “political commitment” and “leadership” to fight the growing epidemic in the United States.

The WHO had warned on Tuesday the US could become the global epicenter of the pandemic, as India announced a full 24-hour, nationwide lockdown in the world’s second-most populous country.

Tedros, speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, also praised the “difficult but wise decision” taken on Tuesday to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, saying it aimed to safeguard the health of athletes and spectators.

He said some countries had wasted time in marshaling resources to combat the outbreak, however.

“We have been saying to the world that the window of opportunity is narrowing and the time to act was actually more than a month ago, two months ago,” Tedros said.

“But we still believe that there is opportunity. I think we squandered the first window of opportunity. This is a second opportunity which we should not squander and do everything to suppress and control this virus.”

WHO officials warned again the world faced a “significant shortage” of personal protection equipment for health workers, particularly masks, gloves, gowns and face shields.

Tedros was due to seek support for ramping up production and funding from Group of 20 leaders holding a summit on Thursday, the officials said.

Tedros praises Trump

New York’s governor said on Wednesday there were tentative signs that restrictions were slowing the spread of the coronavirus in his state, though its situation remained dire, while the crisis deepened in hard-hit New Orleans and other parts of the United States.

Tedros, asked about Trump’s management of the crisis, said it required political leadership.

“And that’s exactly what he is doing, which we appreciate. Because fighting this pandemic needs political commitment and commitment at the highest level possible.

“But not only the whole-of-government approach, but the other [things] like expanding testing and the other recommendations we are making are also in play, and he takes that seriously and that is what we see,” he added.

On India, Tedros said: “India has the capacity, and it’s very important and good to see that India is taking early measures. This will help you to suppress and control it as soon as possible before it gets serious.

“So it’s very important, like what is happening now in India which we really commend to cut it from the bud, when you only have 606 cases.”

India seeks to calm nerves

India’s 1.3 billion people were under lockdown on Wednesday to prevent an explosion of coronavirus cases as the government struggled to deliver essential goods and calm nerves.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered everyone indoors for the next three weeks, saying it was the only way to avoid a disaster and effectively shutting down Asia’s third-largest economy.

Crowds of people thronged shops to stock up on milk, rations and medicines in the hours before the restrictions went into effect at midnight on Tuesday, even though Modi said these would be available throughout the lockdown.

Others including laborers and day workers headed home to the countryside from cities such as Delhi, many walking because public transport also stopped.

Reuters photographers witnessed several cases of Indian police officers hitting people out on the street with sticks. One rickshaw driver, who showed bruises on his calf, said he was defying the lockdown because he was unable to feed his four children otherwise.

Some medical companies said the lockdown was complicating their operations, with workers struggling to get to work and products stuck.

India’s tally of 606, including 10 deaths, seems tiny compared with those in China, Italy and Spain, but health experts have warned that the world’s second most populous country faces a tidal wave of infections if tough steps are not taken.

Risks to public health sector

The lockdown comes after evidence indicated it was spreading out into India’s countless small towns after a first wave in Delhi, the commercial hub Mumbai, and other big cities.

That has raised the prospect of a cash-strapped public health sector being overwhelmed. India has just 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people, compared to 4.3 in China and 3.2 in Italy.

Other countries in South Asia – home to a quarter of the world’s population – are also struggling as they try to put up defenses against the coronavirus.

Pakistan’s tally of cases rose to 1,022, with eight deaths, its Health Ministry said.

Authorities have shut down Sindh province, home to its largest city Karachi, even though Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was opposed to a full lockdown because the poor would suffer the most.

Sri Lanka has sealed itself off from the outside world, suspending all flights in and out of the island nation. Reuters

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