WHO, a leader of global cooperation in combating the coronavirus pandemic finally addresses the controversy surrounding China’s alleged discretion in the initial stages of the epidemic in Wuhan and directs the narrative.

Today is June 8, 2020. Almost 7 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) and there have been about 400,000 related deaths worldwide. While many states in the U.S. are reopening and some people are celebrating warm weather coupled with astounding record lows of COVID-19 infections, the WHO says that this pandemic is growing worse globally. Particularly, infections in Central America; South America; and South Asia have not reached their peaks yet. COVID-19 cases continue to escalate in the African region, although not exponentially. 

According to WHO Executive Director Dr. Michael Ryan, “The epidemic in Central and South America is the most complex of all of the situations we face globally, and one in which the world needs to work and come to the support and aids of countries in the region.” Dr. Ryan said that there was an increase of about 50% cases in Guatemala over the last week, along with fatalities that have increased by over 100%. In countries stretching from Mexico all the way to Chile, some difficulties of tackling this pandemic persist to be in the lack of medical equipment and also prevalent fear and confusion throughout communities. Intensive care beds are not available in all these countries to enable healthcare professionals and patients to grapple with the disease. 

Dr. Michael Ryan averred, “This is a time of great concern. It’s a time in which we need strong government leadership in Latin America. We need international solidarity with the countries of Latin America. And we need leadership from within Latin America to bring this disease under control.”

Furthermore, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO Technical Lead of COVID-19 response, emphasized the fundamental approach to tackling this virus which lies in an individual’s action and response. Dr. Kerkhove said, “What role each individual plays within the pandemic is fundamental.” As part of this comprehensive approach, she asks every person to consider these questions: How can I protect myself from infection? How can I protect my family from infection? How can I prevent the possibility of me transmitting to someone else who may be more vulnerable? 

On the community level, how do we have a public health infrastructure in place to be able to find, isolate, test, and care for positive cases in medical facilities, ensuring that patients receive adequate clinical care depending on the disease that they develop? Do we have the right workforce in place to be able to do contact tracing, to find the context of the known cases and quarantine those contexts?

And, on the government level, she persists, do we have the right testing strategy? Do we have enough tests in place and enough labs to carry out those tests? Do we have this all of the government approach in bringing in all different sectors, not just the health sector, so that we can maintain essential health services, but also try to keep other systems going?

By breaking down questions and actions on the individual, community, and government levels, the comprehensive response to COVID-19 comprises an ecosystem of every occupation and person that to be engaged collectively in order to flatten the curve. Advisories and actions put forth by the government need both individual and community engagement, and reciprocally as well in this ecosystem. 

Dr. Michael Ryan expressed great faith in the countries of Central and South America to overcome these localized epidemics through their own efforts and international help from the WHO and around the world.

Dr. Ryan said, “I think it’s important from the perspective of Latin America that countries in Central and South America have a hugely proud history of dealing with infectious diseases. It was this continent, this subcontinent, that first eradicated polio, all three strains. It was this continent that actually eliminated measles and offered an opportunity for global measles elimination, which we’re unfortunately squandering at the moment. It was this region that dealt most effectively with the huge cholera outbreaks which we had during this current pandemic of cholera, and we’re still in, technically, a cholera pandemic.” 

Given this strong history fighting infectious diseases and pandemics of late, Dr. Ryan affirmed there are tremendous capacities in infectious disease control and disaster preparedness in Latin America and Central and South America and offered positive confidence to these countries to overcome the pandemic. Dr. Kerkove also added that the current state that these countries are in right now is the state that many countries, like the U.S., were in several weeks and months ago. In doing so, she further highlighted the success of the comprehensive and fundamental approach that the WHO stated was necessary to stop the further spread of this virus. 

WHO’s Focus Remains On Overcoming The Pandemic, Rather Than Engaging In Fault-Finding and Political Blame

Yet, during this international and individual cooperation to combat this disease, politics, and differences between countries continue to complicate situations. It is up to leaders to decide what the narrative of COVID-19 would be. 

A reporter brought to attention that yesterday, the Chinese government issued a white paper that detailed its efforts to fight the coronavirus. One of the key reasons for the U.S. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the WHO’s the Member States related to the controversial and alleged discretion of the Communist Party of China (CPP) to keep quiet about the coronavirus in the earlier stages of a once localized epidemic in Wuhan. Many say that this discretion cost lives and led to the fast and global propagation of this disease. Had the CPP been more transparent about COVID-19’s speculated origins and the severity of the initial spread in Wuhan, could the coronavirus have been contained and combatted regionally, rather than emerging as a pandemic? However, at the same time, this political blame and postulations are neither fully proven, nor beneficial to the universal effort to stop the virus. 

In past press conferences, the WHO have avoided and dismissed all questions related to this contention. Today, they responded. 

WHO Executive Director Dr. Michael Ryan said, “I think there will be a time to go back and look at everything we’ve done, everybody at every level from global to national to sub national, from technical to political to scientific, all of the decisions, all of the actions taken at all levels by all players in this response need to be examined and we need to learn, and we need to emerge from this pandemic stronger. But right now, we need to focus the narrative and we need to focus the discussion on what we’re doing now. What are we learning moving forward? And clearly, there are many positive lessons to be learned from the experience of many countries. And that’s what we are focusing on right now: learning what we can, where countries have got it right, where countries have gotten it wrong, and how we can find the package of interventions.”

Dr. Ryan continued on to explain how to find that “package of interventions” and referred back to Dr. Kerkhove’s earlier explanation of a comprehensive approach to combat the coronavirus. Rather than engaging deeply in this fractious debate, the WHO continues to be focused on important questions such as, does every country on this planet have the capacity to implement those core functions in terms of community education, in terms of surveillance, and in terms of the healthcare systems?  Do we have that capacity to sustain a response against this disease, until we have an effective vaccine, or even beyond?

Dr. Ryan further replied that “we will read the documents from China as we do from all countries with interests to learn lessons. But, I would honestly personally prefer if we don’t constantly go back and start to read legislative issues that have occurred months and months ago, and prevent us from moving forward to do the most important work we have to do.”

This stance, taken by the WHO exemplifies their mission statement “to publish and disseminate scientifically rigorous public health information of international significance that enables policy-makers, researchers and practitioners, to be more effective.” At a time when the pandemic doesn’t discriminate among nations; ethnicity; race; gender; age; or wealth, there is still a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and only tentative treatments and vaccines. These issues are more pressing matters. Perhaps closer scrutiny and investigations can occur after the world beats the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove further asserted, “As Mike was saying, we need to focus on the now. This is far from over… and we need everyone to remain focused on achieving the goal at hand, which is stopping the pandemic, which is suppressing transmission and saving lives. And there’s a lot more work to do. So let’s celebrate the successes that we do have but let’s remain focused on the remaining work that needs to be done because unfortunately, this is far from over.” 

Yet, even though the leaders of some countries have taken strong and clear sides in this contentious debate, the WHO continues to work with all countries and American institutions including the CDC and NIH. The WHO has collaborated carefully with clinicians, laboratorians, and public health organizations in the U.S. from well in advance of this pandemic and will continue to tackle issues with them not only on COVID-19 but also other public health threats, such as the renewed emergence of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

As WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Abhanom Ghebreyesus says, “This is not the time for any country to take its foot off the pedal.”

Now is not the time to be pointing fingers at countries and leaders, but to be 100% focused on following the fundamental approach to combat COVID-19 throughout all countries and on the responsive development of future vaccines and treatments. Together, we build the COVID-19 narrative.

Karen Jang

Karen Jang is a Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. She is studying Chemistry at Barnard College of Columbia University and Classical Violin at the Manhattan School of Music. Karen is a graduate...