UN health chief: Fighting virus very hard in divided world

(Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP)

GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization said Friday he is “truly concerned” about divisions the coronavirus has created globally and within individual countries, calling it an “invisible but a very small virus causing havoc.”

“The world has never seen anything like this since the flu in 1918,” WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing, comparing the ongoing pandemic to the Spanish influenza pandemic more than a century ago that is believed to have killed at least 50 million people.

Calling on nations to learn from history and “to do better,” Tedros said the lack of political unity during the current crisis was problematic.

“This is a very dangerous virus, and it’s very hard to fight this virus in a divided world,” he said.

Tedros didn’t elaborate, but the world’s two leading economic powers — the United States, which has the highest caseload and death toll from the pandemic and China, where COVID-19 first emerged — have traded recriminations and accusations about the origins and handling of the coronavirus.

WHO became part of the quarrel. President Donald Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of the U.N. health agency, accusing WHO of being too “China-centric” and accepting of China’s assurances after the initial virus outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the U.N. health agency’s emergencies chief, said Friday that the coronavirus currently is “most active” in the Americas, with four of the 10 countries with the most cases and deaths worldwide located in North America and South America. He noted in particular that the surging caseload in Brazil is worrying.

“It’s clear that some areas of Brazil have quite a bit of pressure on the intensive care system,” he said. “There are clear hot spots in heavily populated areas.”

Ryan said that “a few” of Brazil’s administrative areas have over 80% of their intensive care unit capacity taken up, and “some are at a critical stage” with over 90% of their ICU beds filled.

Brazil has reported over 802,000 confirmed virus cases — the second-most in the world after the United States — and over 40,000 COVID-19 deaths, according to a tally maintained by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has over 2 million confirmed cases and 114,000 deaths

“The data we have at the moment supports a system under pressure, but a system still coping with the number of severe cases,” Ryan said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has rejected ordering quarantines, and many Brazilians have criticized him for opposing city and state measures such as lockdowns, social distancing and other steps meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

WHO chief Tedros, as an example of “the sort of national unity” he thinks the pandemic requires, cited a phone call he had in which Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told him she was working with an opposition party to identify problems and propose solutions.

Tedros noted that millions of people have lost their lives or their jobs because of the pandemic, calling it a “humbling” moment. “This has to stop,” he said. “But it will be difficult in a divided world.”

WHO officials are particularly worried as the pandemic accelerates in developing countries about the disproportionate toll on people who may struggle to get health services: women, children and adolescents, Tedros said.

The coronavirus has overwhelmed health systems in many countries, putting many women at a “heightened risk” of dying in childbirth, he said.

Young people who are vulnerable to anxiety and depression also are at greater risk during the pandemic, Tedros said, noting that in some countries, more than one-third of teens receive mental health help exclusively at school. 


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