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WHO urges caution as EU states soften lockdowns

  • WHO: 'Although some countries seem to be ready, we don’t know what is going to happen as the [lockdown] measures are eased' (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

As the number of coronavirus infections in Europe reaches nearly one million cases, countries should be cautious when considering easing restrictive measures, warned the European director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Hans Kluge, on Thursday (16 April).

In the past 10 days the number of cases reported in Europe has nearly doubled, what means around 50 percent of the global burden of Covid-19 pandemic is in Europe - where more than 84,000 people have died.

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"The storm clouds of this pandemic still hang heavily over the European region," Kluge warned, adding that the transition period to exit lockdown and other restrictive measures should not be underestimated.

Given that some countries in Europe - such as Germany, Denmark or Austria - are planning to ease restrictive measures, the WHO has prepared a set of guidelines, with six criteria.

Countries considering easing measures should ensure that the number of infections is declining and its health systems can cope with coronavirus cases and possible outbreaks - while guaranteeing their capability for surveillance and contact-tracing.

The WHO also recommends considering the social and economic measures needed in the upcoming months and the concerns of the general public, as well as ensuring the protection of the most vulnerable people "to leave no one behind".

"There is no fast trackback to normality and if a country cannot ensure that the six criteria can be met, I urge them to re-think the easing of restrictions," Kluge said.

Earlier this week, the European Commission presented a set of guidelines for member states - after Austria and Denmark announced they would start to open small shops and schools.

'The new normal'

WHO senior advisor Natasha Azzopardi Muscat said the transition will not be a 'one-size-fits-all' approach, as countries have different epidemiological situations.

"However, it is very clear that this transition is not going back to normal but moving forward into a new normal," she said.

How this 'new normal' will look like is still unclear. "Although some countries seem to be ready, we don't know what is going to happen as the measures are eased," said Azzopardi Muscat.

More and more countries are developing mobile applications for contact tracing as a way to exit restrictive measures, but the WHO warned they are not a "magic bullet" - and should be integrated within the public health strategy.

"We understand that people can have several concerns about privacy and data protection [so] it is important that such apps are voluntary and have a very clear and simple consent form," she said.

Additionally, the WHO does not recommend the use of face masks for the general public, due to the widely reported shortages.

Yet, some countries such as Luxembourg and Austria have made them obligatory for certain spaces.

Trump's funding cut

After US president Donald Trump announced a halt to funding for the WHO, Kluge said that the institution welcomed the support shown by the whole European region and other countries worldwide.

"We are looking at the financial situation. But for the time, we are in the middle of the crisis so what we focus on is to save lives," Kluge said, adding that this would not be the good moment to cut funding.

The US is WHO top's donor and it contributes yearly with over €367.7m, according to the regional director.

"The US has been a long-standing friend and we hope it will continue to support WHO," he concluded.

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