January 21, 2021

WHO Director−General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID−19 − 16 November 2020

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Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

This is not the time for complacency.

While we continue to receive encouraging news about COVID-19 vaccines and remain cautiously optimistic about the potential for new tools to start to arrive in the coming months.

Right now we are extremely concerned by the surge in cases we’re seeing in some countries.

Particularly in Europe and the Americas, health workers and health systems are being pushed to the breaking point.

WHO has issued guidance and tools to increase capacity for the medical and public health workforce and supplies and facilities to manage COVID-19 patients.

At present, WHO has 150 emergency medical teams assisting countries in the planning and implementation of their emergency responses.

WHO and partners are working with governments and health leaders to ensure that there is cover for health workers that are sick.

That there are enough beds for COVID-19 patients and for essential health services to continue safely.

That there are enough masks, gloves and other protective equipment.

That governments have access to enough tests, therapeutics and supplies to cope with demand now.

And that health systems will be ready when safe and effective vaccines are rolled out.

Health workers on the frontlines have been stretched for months. They are exhausted.

We must do all we can to protect them, especially during this period when the virus is spiking and patients are filling hospital beds.

In this moment when some governments have put all of society restrictions in place, there is once again a narrow window of time to strengthen key systems.

We’ve seen that those countries which invested in case finding, care and isolation, cluster investigations, adequate testing with rapid results, contact tracing and supported quarantine are facing much less disruption.

Cluster investigations and contract tracing are part of the bedrock of a successful public health response.

These actions help prevent individual cases from becoming clusters, and clusters turning into community transmission.

During recent Ebola outbreaks, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and WHO have invested in people and trained up a sizeable number of contract tracers who work closely with local leaders and communities.

And in just two days, in part down to active case finding and contact tracing, they will be able – I hope – to call an end to the most recent Ebola outbreak.

As countries take extreme measures to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19, now is the time to invest in the systems that will prevent further waves of the virus.

Invest in a well trained and protected public health work force so that you have enough contact tracers in place and ensure that those who are sick can isolate away from others and contacts are identified, notified and managed properly.

And where cases are starting to come down, keep investing so that you’re prepared.

This is a dangerous virus, which can attack every system in the body.

Those countries that are letting the virus run unchecked are playing with fire.

First, there will be further needless deaths and suffering.

Second, as we featured two weeks ago in a press conference, we are seeing a significant number of people experiencing long-term effects of the virus.

Third, health workers in particular are facing extreme mental health pressure and cases are severely burdening health systems in too many countries.

Health workers went into medicine to save lives as you know.

We must avoid putting them into situation where they have to make impossible choices about who gets care and who doesn’t.

We need to do everything we can to support health workers, keep schools open, protect the vulnerable and safeguard the economy.

From calling up students, volunteers and even national guards to support the health response in times of crisis, to putting strict measures in place that allow pressure to be removed from the health system.

There is no excuse for inaction. My message is very clear: act fast, act now, act decisively.

A laissez-faire attitude to the virus – not using the full range of tools available – leads to death, suffering and hurts livelihoods and economies.

It’s not a choice between lives or livelihoods. The quickest way to open up economies is to defeat the virus.

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Last week, leaders came together at both the World Health Assembly and the Paris Peace Forum.

High on the agenda was the ACT Accelerator and ensuring equitable access to new rapid tests, therapeutics and COVID-19 vaccines.

The European Commission, France, Spain, The Republic of Korea and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged US$360 million to COVAX, the vaccines pillar of the ACT Accelerator.

New contributions bring the total committed to US$5.1 billion. 

This is very substantial – but to ensure that tools are rolled out quickly across the world so that we save lives, stabilize health systems and drive a truly global recovery, another US$4.2 billion needed urgently and a further US$23.9 billion will be required in 2021.

With countries spending trillions to prop up economies, COVAX represents the best possible deal as it will mean a quicker recovery for all and an end to stimulus.

G20 leaders will meet this weekend.

This is an opportunity for them to commit financially and politically to the ACT Accelerator and COVAX so that together we can end this pandemic quickly.
It’s also a moment for us to strive for the world we want.

This cannot be business as usual.

The time has come for a fundamental shift toward health being seen as an investment, rather than a cost, and the foundation of productive, resilient and stable economies. Health is central.

To reflect this, last week I launched a new Council on the Economics of Health for All, to be chaired by distinguished economist Mariana Mazzucato, to put universal health coverage at the centre of how we think about value creation and economic growth.

Health like the climate crisis, inequality and conflict cannot be tackled in silos.

A new collective way forward is needed to ensure that we deliver on the promises of the past and tackle these intertwined challenges together.

I thank you.

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