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WHO declares coronavirus pandemic

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(From L) World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme Director Michael Ryan, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove attend a daily press briefing on COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO heardquaters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020, that the new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterised as a pandemic. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

• Says cases outside China increased 13-fold
• Urges aggressive action to contain spread

The World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday finally declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and urged countries to take urgent and aggressive action to contain the spread.

There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries while 4,291 people have lost their lives to the disease.

The Director General of the organisation, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who made the declaration said the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold over the past two weeks and expressed concern about “alarming levels of inaction” in the fight against the spread of the disease.

Ghebreyesus observed that “the rapid spread of the coronavirus is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector – so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.

“Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals. In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher.”

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He argued that “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilise their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.”

The WHO director general noted that 57 countries had reported 10 cases or less while 81 countries had not reported any cases.

“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. Just looking at the number of cases and the number of countries affected does not tell the full story. Of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 per cent of cases are in just four countries, and two of those – China and the Republic of Korea – have significantly declining epidemics. Even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can turn the tide on this virus. Several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled.

“The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will. Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resources. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve.”

Ghebreyesus said that the WHO had been assessing the outbreak around the clock and it was deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.

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“We have, therefore, made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic. Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do. We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus.

This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time.

“WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases. And we have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear. All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimising economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights,” he added.

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