Bans on international travel cannot stay in place indefinitely, and countries should do more to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus within their borders, the World Health Organization has said.
A surge of infections has prompted countries to reimpose some travel restrictions in recent days.
Only with strict adherence to health measures, from wearing masks to avoiding crowds, would the world manage to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a virtual news briefing on Monday.
“Where these measures are followed, cases go down. Where they are not, cases go up,” he said, praising Canada, China, Germany and South Korea for controlling outbreaks.
WHO Emergencies Programme head Mike Ryan said travel bans were not sustainable.
“It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future. Economies have to open up, people have to work, trade has to resume,” he said.
“What is clear is pressure on the virus pushes the numbers down. Release that pressure and cases creep back up.”
Tedros also said that the UN health body’s emergency committee would convene to re-examine the declaration that the outbreak constituted a “public health emergency of international concern”.
A so-called PHEIC declaration, which marks the highest level of alarm under international health rules, must be re-evaluated every six months.
Prior to COVID-19, WHO had only made such declarations five times since its International Health Regulations changed in 2007, for swine flu, polio, Zika and twice for Ebola outbreaks in Africa.
Of those, the current pandemic “is easily the most severe,” Tedros said.
There is little doubt that the emergency committee will consider that the pandemic still constitutes a global public health emergency, but it could potentially alter some of its recommendations on how the WHO and the world should respond.
The situation has shifted dramatically since the declaration was made.
“When I declared a public health emergency of international concern on the 30th of January … there were less than 100 cases outside of China, and no deaths,” Tedros said.
But since then, the case numbers have soared past 16 million, with close to 650,000 deaths around the world.
“COVID-19 has changed our world. It has brought people, communities and nations together, and driven them apart,” Tedros said.
The WHO has faced criticism from certain quarters for its response, with some charging it acted too slowly – something the organisation itself strenuously denies.
“Over the past six months, WHO has worked tirelessly to support countries to prepare for and respond to this virus,” Tedros said.
“I am immensely proud of our organisation, WHO, and its incredible people and their efforts.”
Tedros himself has for months faced relentless attacks from US President Donald Trump, who has accused WHO of being a “puppet of China”.
Earlier this month Trump made good on his threat to begin withdrawing the US – traditionally WHO’s largest donor – from the organisation.