Statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
Copenhagen, 28 January 2021
Today, we face a pandemic paradox.
Vaccines, on the one hand, offer remarkable hope. On the other hand, newly emerging variants of concern are presenting greater uncertainty and risk.
A total of 35 countries in the European Region have begun vaccinations, administering 25 million doses. These vaccines have shown the efficacy and safety we all hoped they would, and we should pause to acknowledge where science and determination have got us, since the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified a year ago. This monumental undertaking will release pressure on our health systems and undoubtedly save lives.
Continued high rates of transmission and emerging COVID-19 variants of concern, however, have raised the urgency of the task to vaccinate priority groups. The increasing expectation of science, and vaccine development, production and equitable distribution, is not being met as fast as we would all like.
This paradox, where communities sense an end is in sight with the vaccine but, at the same time, are called to adhere to restrictive measures in the face of a new threat, is causing tension, angst, fatigue and confusion. This is completely understandable in these circumstances.
Today the world will exceed 100 million COVID-19 cases, of which a third are in the Europe Region, and in 2 days, it will be 1 year since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest level of alarm.
As of today, 33 European countries have reported cases of the variant initially identified in the UK; while 16 have reported the one first identified in South Africa. Several hospitals, schools and long-term care settings have reported outbreaks involving new variants of concern.
Lockdowns, introduced to limit the spread of the virus, particularly the more transmissible new variants, have resulted in a decrease in new cases across the Region: 30 countries have seen a significant decrease in 14-day cumulative incidence. This is 7 more countries than 2 weeks ago. Yet, transmission rates across Europe are still very high, impacting health systems and straining services, making it too early to ease up. Pushing transmission down requires a sustained, consistent effort. Bear in mind that just over 3% of people in the Region have had a confirmed COVID-19 infection. Areas hit badly once can be hit again.
Not a single community nor individual have been spared the consequences of the pandemic. More than 700 000 Europeans have lost their lives to a virus that has had a brutal impact on our economies, our mental health and education, our private and professional lives, our relationships. Last week alone, deaths continued to plateau at record levels with over 38 000 new deaths reported. To the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives to this disease, I offer my deepest condolences.
While breaking transmission chains is a clear priority, we are also addressing the effect on mental health. Mental illness is taking its toll, both on those who were already at risk, as well as on those who have never sought mental health support before. The International Labour Organization found that the pandemic has meant that half of young people aged 18 to 29 are subject to depression and anxiety — and up to 20% of health-care workers are suffering from anxiety and depression. Poor mental health has become a parallel pandemic that WHO/Europe is determined to address with a new Mental Health Coalition aimed at ramping up support and guidance to every country.
Some tough questions have been asked of our leaders over this past year. To European health authorities that have taken timely but painful decisions and managed to reverse the trend, I commend you for your resourcefulness and actions. Empowering health leadership in countries, especially in times of crises, is a priority for WHO/Europe.\ Let us not forget the lessons we have learned so harshly: opening and closing, locking down and opening up, rapidly, is a poor strategy. The introduction and gradual lifting of measures based on epidemiological criteria remains our best option to allow economies to survive and minimize collateral effects. Our approach must be measured, it must be restrained.
We need to stay patient. It will take time to vaccinate against COVID-19. To the millions of you in the 25 European countries that are currently in partial or full nationwide lockdown, whose freedom of movement is restricted, I am fully aware of the sacrifices you have made. I too feel it in my family, my community and my workplace.
In the face of new, more transmissible variants of the virus, we will need to keep our guard up. This is the time we must draw on every reserve of patience and resilience to tolerate and adhere to the necessary measures that protect our health systems from collapsing under waves of a more transmissible virus.
Stay positive, stay healthy, stay connected.
Source: World Health Organization