WHO: 'The worst is yet to come' and the coronavirus pandemic is 'speeding up' because some countries aren't taking it seriously enough

hbrueck@businessinsider.com (Hilary Brueck)


  • The World Health Organization said on Monday that "the worst is yet to come" in the fight against the novel coronavirus and that "the pandemic is actually speeding up."

  • There's already a playbook for what works well to stop the virus, but not everyone is using it, WHO said.

  • The multipronged strategy includes widespread testing, tracing, and continued vigilance with social distancing when new clusters of cases emerge.

  • "Every politician needs to look in the mirror and say, 'Am I doing enough to stop this virus?'" the executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program said.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A park ranger wears a face mask while patrolling a trail in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona on May 25.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

It's been six months since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, but on Monday it told the world to prepare for the "long haul" ahead.

"The worst is yet to come," WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on a call with reporters from Geneva. "I'm sorry to say that. But with this kind of environment and condition, we fear the worst."

WHO officials stressed repeatedly on the call that not all countries were combatting the virus with the same levels of success or vigilance. With more than half of the 10 million coronavirus cases to date and almost half of the 500,000 deaths in the Americas, there's a lot more that both governments and people in overburdened countries like the US and Brazil could be doing to stop this virus.

"We all want this to be over, we all want to get on with our lives, but the hard reality is this is not even close to being over," Tedros said. "Although many countries have made some progress, globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up."

Without naming any names, Tedros chided countries for not doing more to stop the spread of the virus as economies reopen.

The virus' spread "could have been prevented through the tools that we have at hand," Tedros said. "Time after time and country after country, what we have seen is this virus can be suppressed if the governments are serious about the things they have to do — their share — and if the community can do its share."

Read more: Dozens of drugmakers are racing to develop coronavirus vaccines. Here's how they see 2020 playing out and when the first vaccines might be available.

Some countries can 'pounce on disease' better than others

Emerson Gorman, 66, a Navajo elder, at his property near the Navajo Nation town of Steamboat, Arizona, on May 23. The traditional healer, who lives on the largest Native American reservation in the US, said he sees it as his duty to pass on his wisdom as the community elders face an existential threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

WHO applauded previously hard-hit countries, like South Korea and China, and others that dealt with recent recurrences of the virus, including Germany, Singapore, and Japan, adding that coronavirus vigilance requires a concerted effort from both politicians and citizens.

Many of the most successful coronavirus-fighting countries have adopted a multilayered public-health approach allowing them "to pounce on disease" quickly and effectively where it reemerges, said Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program.

"What you have to do is push the disease down to the lowest possible level," he said, stressing that in addition to more nationwide testing and tracing and good public-health surveillance systems, the most successful strategies relied on diligent citizens who stay home when coronavirus transmission is widespread.

"Communities have made a huge sacrifice for that to happen," Ryan said. "They're staying at home. They're staying away from their families. They've contributed tremendously to suppressing infection."

Read more: Antibody drugs to prevent and treat the coronavirus are storming into the clinic. Here are the 8 top drugmakers crafting these treatments, which could be ready this fall.

But that hasn't been the case across much of the US, where many basic public-health measures, such as wearing a mask to prevent asymptomatic transmission and staying home when the virus is spreading in a community, have been couched as political choices.

In a poll conducted earlier this month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Republican and Republican-leaning independents said they thought the worst of the coronavirus outbreak and its related problems "is behind us," while less than a quarter of Democrats and Democratic-leaning participants said the same.

"We cannot continue to allow the fight against this virus to become and be sustained as an ideologic fight," Ryan said. "We cannot beat this virus with ideologies. We simply cannot."

Medical staff members consult with a Navajo man at a COVID-19 testing center in the Navajo Nation town of Monument Valley, Arizona, on May 21.

Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Increasingly, top health officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle in the US have encouraged people — including President Donald Trump — to wear masks when they're out in public. Masks can help prevent the disease from spreading to other people, especially from asymptomatic people who may feel perfectly healthy. (Trump said on the first day that the federal government recommended face coverings, "I don't see it for myself.")

Meanwhile, some governors have started to allow cities and local communities more control over their own virus precautions, as more cases have sprouted up in some heavily populated areas of the US.

"Every individual needs to look in the mirror and say, 'Am I doing enough?'" Ryan said. "And every politician needs to look in the mirror and say, 'Am I doing enough to stop this virus?'"

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