Statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
Kopenhagen, 28. Januar 2021
Today we see the paradox of a pandemic.
On the one hand, vaccines give us hope. At the same time, alarming new variants of the virus are emerging, which pose a significant threat and create uncertainty.
Vaccinations have already begun in 35 countries in the European Region, and 25 million doses of vaccine have been administered to date. As we hoped, these vaccines have proven to be effective and safe, and I would like to emphasize that this became possible, one year after the discovery of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, thanks to the achievements of our science and thanks to our determination. This monumental endeavor will help take the strain off our health systems and will undoubtedly save many lives.
At the same time, the rate of spread of COVID-19 remains high and new and worrying variants of the virus are emerging. In such circumstances, the task of providing vaccines to priority populations becomes even more important. People have high hopes for scientists and vaccine developers, for their production and fair distribution, but these expectations are not being met as quickly as we would like.
The current paradoxical situation, when with the advent of the vaccine, people begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time are forced to comply with restrictive measures in the face of a new threat, generates tension, anxiety, irritation and misunderstanding. This is a perfectly understandable reaction.
Today, the number of COVID-19 cases in the world exceeds 100 million, and a third of them are in the European Region. In two days, it will be exactly one year since the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus infection a public health emergency of international concern. This is the highest risk rating assigned by the WHO.
So far, 33 countries in the European Region have reported a variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom, and 16 countries have reported a variant of the virus first detected in South Africa. Several hospitals, schools and long-term care facilities have reported outbreaks caused by these new worrying options.
The introduction of quarantines to limit the spread of the virus, especially new, more spreading variants, has reduced the number of new cases in the Region, with 30 countries experiencing significant declines in cumulative incidence over a 14-day period. This is seven more countries than two weeks ago.
However, the spread of the virus in Europe is still very high, placing an enormous strain on health systems and related services, and it is therefore too early to talk about easing restrictions. Slowing down the spread of the virus requires sustained and concerted efforts. It should be remembered that all currently confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Region represent just over 3% of its population. Countries and territories that have been hit hard by the virus before
The consequences of the pandemic have not spared any community, not a single person. The virus has killed more than 700,000 people in Europe, has dealt a severe blow to our economy, our mental health and education, our personal life and professional activities, and our relationships. The death rate remains consistently high, with a record 38,000 new deaths recorded in the past week alone. I would like to express my deepest condolences to those from whom the disease took their loved ones.
Interrupting the chain of transmission of the virus is our highest priority, but at the same time we are also addressing the mental health consequences of the pandemic. The burden of mental illness is growing, both among those who have previously been at risk and among those who have never sought help to protect their mental health before.
According to the International Labor Organization, as a result of the pandemic, half of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, and among health workers this figure is up to 20%.
Mental health disorders have taken on the dimensions of yet another parallel pandemic, and WHO Europe is committed to addressing this issue through a new Mental Health Coalition that will scale up support, including through recommendations and guidelines, for each country.
Over the past year, our leaders have had to answer many tough questions. I would like to thank the European health authorities, who took the difficult, painful decisions in a timely manner, which helped to reverse unfavorable trends, for their determination.
For WHO Europe, strengthening the leadership capacity of national health authorities is one of the highest priorities.
We must not forget the lesson for which we paid such a high price: the rapid alternation of tightening and easing quarantine measures proved to be a poor strategy. The most effective option for saving the economy and minimizing negative consequences remains the introduction and gradual elimination of measures based on epidemiological criteria. Our approach must be balanced and prudent.
We must be patient. Vaccination against COVID-19 will take time. Addressing millions of people in 25 European countries where there is a partial or complete nationwide quarantine restricting freedom of movement, I would like to tell them this: I know perfectly well what you had to sacrifice. I myself see this in my family, my neighbors and my colleagues.
We must not lose our vigilance in the face of new, more rapidly spreading variants of the virus. We must mobilize all our reserves of patience and resilience and take the necessary steps to protect our health systems from the collapse of these new options.
Do not lose optimism, take care of your health and take care of each other.
Thank you for your attention!