Not Too Soon: Lifting Social, Economic Restriction vs COVID-19

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By Henrylito D. Tacio

Countries which are planning to end physical distancing measures and movement restrictions must think twice, the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) reminds.

“Some countries are now considering lifting social and economic restrictions,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in his opening remarks at the mission briefing on coronavirus diseases 2019 (COVID-19) last April 16. “This is something we all want – but it must be done extremely carefully.”

Speaking at the general headquarters at Geneva, Switzerland, Dr. Tedros said that his office has already received a total of almost two million cases of COVID-19 from around the globe, with more than 123,000 deaths.  “That’s more than 40,000 more deaths since I spoke to you last week,” he said.

Although he described the situation as “alarming and tragic,” the WHO chief said they’re “seeing encouraging signs in some countries that have been the epicenter of the pandemic.”

So much so that some countries are now considering of ending social and economic restrictions.  In Germany, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel is setting “in motion a plan to begin lifting social and economic restrictions in place,” New York Times’ Katrin Bennhold reports.

Dr. Tedros, however, urged these countries to weigh the pros and cons.  “If done too quickly, we risk a resurgence that could be even worse than out present situation,” he warned.

As one Filipino doctor puts it: “We may have flattened the curve and everyone is excited to go back to their normal lives.  The consequences of lifting the enhanced community quarantine too soon might come back and bite us in our own buttocks.”

President Rodrigo Duterte, in one of his recent speeches, also said: “Doctors are saying that if we lift the enhanced community quarantine now, there will be a second wave.”

Photo from WHO

The WHO is very much aware of this.  So much so that is has outlined six factors for countries which are considering of lifting social and economic restrictions.  These are:

  • Transmission is controlled;
  • The health system capacities are in place to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact;
  • Outbreak risks are minimized in special settings like health facilities and nursing homes;
  • Preventive measures are in place in workplaces, schools and other places where it’s essential for people to go;
  • Importation risks can be managed; and
  • Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the “new normal.”

“COVID-19 magnifies our existing health inequalities,” Dr. Tedros reminded.  “Governments must consider that for some countries and communities, stay-at-home order may not be practical, and even cause unintended harm.”

Even if social and economic restrictions are lifted, there is no assurance that everything will be back to normal.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believed that the only thing that can bring back “normalcy” is a COVID-19 vaccine.

“A safe and effective vaccine may be the only tool that can return the world to a sense of ‘normalcy,’ saving millions of lives and countless trillions of dollars,” he said during a video conference.

Dr. Tedros said in earlier conferences told media that there are several vaccines on the pipeline.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime leader of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Time that developing the vaccine will take at least a year and a half – the same message conveyed by pharmaceutical executives.

“While a vaccine for general use takes time to develop, a vaccine many ultimately be instrumental in controlling this worldwide pandemic,” said a group of experts with diverse background worked towards the development of vaccines against COVID-19 in a statement released to media.

Photo from WHO

“In the interim, we applaud the implementation of community intervention measures that reduce spread of the virus and protect people, including vulnerable populations, and pledge to use the time gained by the widespread adoption of such measures to develop a vaccine as rapidly as possible,” the statement added.

It may take a while before a vaccine is made available.  “The world has learned many lessons of the mass use of vaccines and there’s only one thing more dangerous than a bad virus and that’s a bad vaccine so we have to be very, very, very careful in developing any product that we’re going to inject into potentially most of the world’s population,” says Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief. – ###

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