SEA must deploy all tools possible
The World Health Organization (WHO) South-East Asia region has in recent months witnessed a sharp and sustained surge of SARS-CoV2 infections. For consecutive weeks in April and May, the region has reported more than 2 million new cases, with some areas reporting test positivity rates 40% and upwards. Variants of concern and their sub-lineages have been detected in several member states and may be associated with increased rates of transmission. Both the region and world are at a critical moment in the battle against Covid-19. No country is safe. We are all at risk.
Populations are exhausted. For almost 18 months they have done everything they can to protect themselves and their loved ones. And yet we are still very much in the acute phase of this pandemic. Vaccine euphoria and the complacency it can bring are real dangers, especially as some countries globally return to normal. In all countries of the region, we must continue to sustain and scale up the response, and see this challenge through. How should the region forge ahead?
First, by aggressively applying the public health and social measures that are proven to be effective, and which are our best defence against new variants. Physical distancing works. Mask use works. Hand hygiene works. Ventilation, testing, contact tracing, and isolation -- they all work to control spread, save lives and minimise impact. We must continue to act on the 3Ws -- wear a mask, wash hands and watch distance. And we must continue to avoid the 3Cs -- crowded places, close-contact settings, and confined and enclosed spaces.
Second, monitoring and expanding health system's capacity to ensure it can meet population needs, whatever the caseload. In the event of a surge in cases, step-wise plans must be activated to enhance space, staff and supplies -- including oxygen and beds -- and to heighten coordination between and among facilities. Essential health services must continue to be maintained to ensure that all people can access the services they require to stay healthy and well -- one of the region's key points of focus throughout the pandemic response.
Third, vaccinating priority groups, as defined in national deployment and vaccination plans. Amid ongoing supply challenges, countries should optimise the use of available doses to expand protection among priority groups and maximise public health benefits. Political and public support for vaccination must continue to be promoted, while acknowledging that vaccination alone will not end the pandemic. It is imperative that countries with a surplus of doses share them with the Covax Facility, which aims to deliver 2 billion doses to participating low- and middle-income countries globally by the end of 2021.
We must all do our part. False rumours and misinformation can increase risk-taking behaviour, facilitate disease transmission, and intensify or lengthen an outbreak. They can cause confusion and erode social trust, which is among the most important elements of any outbreak response. Before sharing information, consider its source, and whether the information is verified and reliable. Be an ambassador of high-quality information, which can be accessed online via WHO's website and social media accounts, and those of national and local authorities.
Across the world, Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted key demographics, who for a range of social and economic reasons, may be more susceptible to transmission, or may struggle to access healthcare. This is not only inequitable, but also inefficient. In all countries of the region, equity must continue to be a core feature of Covid-19 decision-making, whether on access to testing and treatment, or the provision of social and economic protection.
We must go hard and go all out. Since the beginning of the pandemic, WHO has provided member states critical guidance and support, which has in recent months included thousands of oxygen concentrators, millions of respirator masks, and a series of auxiliary health facilities. Countries in the region continue to reap life-saving benefits from the access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, which is the fastest, most coordinated, and successful global collaboration in history to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. It is only through solidarity, and by sustaining region-wide resolve, that we can drive infection down, prepare for and prevent new waves, and bring evidence-based treatments and technologies to all who need them.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh
WHO Regional Director
Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh is WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia.