WHO boss warns against COVID ‘emergency fatigue’ in Europe

Pandemic slowing in Europe, but WHO Europe director says emergency fatigue threatens precious gains made against this virus

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge
WHO Europe director Hans Kluge

The European region is seeing an overall slowing of the COVID-19 pandemic despite a total of 1.78 million confirmed cases, and 160,000 deaths, which account for 43% of cases and 56% of deaths globally, WHO Europe director Hans Kluge has said.

But Kluge warned that Europe was now at a fork in the road where individual behaviour would determined whether countries go into “a new normal” or walk back to restrictions on movement and social interactions.

“Emergency fatigue threatens the precious gains we have made against this virus. Reports of distrust in authorities and conspiracy thinking are fueling movements against social and physical distancing.

“Others are behaving over-cautiously, which continues to limit their social interactions and access to health services, for example. Mistrust, resistance to measures, a disregard for the behavioural changes we have all made to limit COVID-19, will send us down the road none of us want to take,” Kluge said.

“Simply put, our behaviour today, will set the course for the pandemic. As governments lift restrictions, you, the people become the main actors. It is an individual as well as a collective responsibility.”

The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and Spain remain among the top 10 countries around the world reporting the most cases in the past 24 hours. 

Whilst the risk across all countries in the European Region remains very high, it is Eastern Europe that is seeing continued rising case counts.

Kluge said that in 39 countries now easing restrictions in the European region, people’s behaviour remained as important now as ever before.

“In short, our behaviour, our choices, determine where this road leads us, and where it ends… I have three messages today. One - there’s no room for complacency, remain vigilant. Two – authorities need to listen to their publics and adapt accordingly, in real-time. Three – behave responsibly, we each shape the story of this pandemic,” Kluge said.

The WHO Europe director added that over the past week, clusters of new cases had emerged in places like Wuhan, and the Republic of Korea, where the virus had apparently disappeared.

He said this was a “timely reminder that the threat of virus resurgence is never far away. Vigilance and a continued determination to keep this virus at bay is needed as much during times of peak transmission as it is whilst restrictions are being eased.”

Kluge said that until a vaccine or treatments are at hand for everyone, limiting the virus required “a social contract that extends beyond any government official’s or leader’s ability to control. Vigilance is an all of society responsibility.”

He also said governments and authorities had to listen to their populations, earn trust and plan their pandemic response measures. “Situations change fast. Understanding how, why and the context in which people and communities respond to different pandemic response interventions helps inform government decisions, shape communications and guide the planning of measures.”