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WORLD | 04-07-2020 09:18

World Health Organisation remains alive to Covid-19 threat, despite criticism

Under fire for misleading comments on transmission, face masks and its dealings with China, the WHO’s local branch in Argentina says it’s delivering results in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organisation, gripped by efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, finds itself under pressure.

The UN public health agency, which has played a vital role in framing and fighting the battle against Covid-19 in Argentina and across the world, has come under scrutiny in recent months for misleading comments about asymptomatic transmission and the effectiveness of face masks, which have caused the public – and some world leaders – to question the organisation. 

On May 29, US President Donald Trump, after weeks of criticism, made an announcement that Washington would sever ties with the WHO. He complained that the agency was not demanding more information from China about the virus. 

Nevertheless, the WHO remains a powerful force in combating Covid-19 worldwide and its staff emphasise the pandemic is far from over. On Friday, the WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said nations needed to “wake up,” stop bickering and “take control.”

"People need to wake up. The data is not lying. The situation on the ground is not lying," said Ryan during a UN press briefing.

Covid-19 has now reached almost every country on Earth since it emerged in China last year, with at least 10 million confirmed cases worldwide and a death toll of more than 500,000. The Americas are the hardest-hit region, with numbers skyrocketing in a several Latin American nations.

In Argentina, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), a subsect of the agency, has worked in close coordination with the National Health Ministry and regional governments to help the country contain the virus. 

“With a long history of close collaboration with the Health Ministry at central and provincial levels, and in the context of a recent change in government, Argentina’s PAHO/WHO Country Office has served as a neutral and objective partner providing evidence-based advice, continuity and institutional memory to reinforce the government’s preparedness and response efforts,” the PAHO said in a recent statement.

The same bulletin said that “in the early phases of the pandemic, PAHO/WHO intensively supported Argentina’s health authorities in rapidly building laboratory capacity -– enabling the country to stay ahead of the curve in its testing capacity in order to effectively track transmission and take action.”

The Times reached out to the PAHO’s local representative, but they were unavailable for comment.

PAHO contribution

The PAHO outlined three areas in which the organisation contribute to the Covid-19 response in Argentina: Investment in communications for a stronger Covid-19 response, maintaining essential health services, and inter-agency cooperation. 

Juan Ruiz, a family physician at the German Hospital in Buenos Aires and public health expert, told the Times that among healthcare professionals in Argentina, the perception of the WHO has changed during the pandemic. 

“There is a certain degree of mistrust regarding some measures recommended by the WHO and the way in which they have decided to show the information to the general public,” he admitted.

Ruiz continued: “On the other hand, it seems that [the WHO] has developed a series of recommendations as a standard model, but these recommendations should be adapted and take into account the particular situation of each country.” 

To date, Argentina has recorded more than 69,000 confirmed cases and 1,400 deaths from the disease. Ruiz says that the sharing of information across borders has been helpful in the search for effective interventions.

According to the PAHO, Argentina worked quickly to improve its testing capacity.

“With the technical cooperation of PAHO/WHO, Argentina worked quickly to scale up testing and now has a network of 338 public and private laboratories conducting PCR tests throughout the country, reaching a testing rate of 4000 per 1,000,000 population by June 4,” said a recent PAHO report. 

“International cooperation helped us learn about face masks, social distancing, and which medications are effective or not,” confirms Ruiz.

The doctor adds that some interventions have also had adverse effects in the Argentine context, but that such effects are to be expected in large-scale public health interventions. 

“Social distancing measures, such as closing non-essential shops and industries, have generated very significant economic damage in some communities. In the same way, mandatory confinement has generated an increase in mental health stress and social isolation,” said Ruiz. 

He also notes that there will be challenges going forward, specifically in regards to the accelerating growth of cases in the winter months. Based on these challenges, he believes that “an isolation plan should be designed for patients with mild infection in low-complexity centres, hotels, or their homes – these represent more than 80 percent of patients and currently occupy a large part of testing and isolation resources.” 

International cooperations

The effort to tackle Covid-19 has seen many international organisations team up. PAHO staff have worked hand-in-hand with a number of other international groups to combat the coronavirus, including the United Nations Country Team, UNICEF, and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which has worked with the Public Works Ministry to aid the purchase of equipment and the installation of modular hospitals.

Despite growing case numbers and the renewed lockdown in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA), the PAHO’s local office says it remains optimistic that the pandemic could represent “an important turning point” to ensure public health infrastructure is upgraded to tackle “future pandemics and other health shocks.”

The agency says it is here for the long term. “The PAHO/WHO will continue its technical cooperation with Argentina to learn from its experience, work to recover socio-economically and continue building upon its considerable human resource capacities and other assets to advance towards a healthy, productive population that has universal access to essential health services and resilience to face future health threats, so that no one is being left behind,” it said in a statement.

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Jennifer Heiman & Anina Hoffman

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