As the northern hemisphere enters winter, the World Health Organization (WHO) has told countries to brace themselves for a second wave of Covid-19 infections as cases accelerate, particularly in Europe and North America.
In words that echoed warnings from European officials last week, Dr Tedros and WHO’s health emergencies team stressed on Monday that governments need to double down on testing, contact-tracing and quarantine measures – before surges overwhelm health systems – potentially leading to death rates like those seen in the first wave of the spring.
Why is this important? The warning came after Switzerland announced tighter restrictions on Sunday to tackle the recent spike in coronavirus cases, including a ban on gatherings of more than 15 people, mask requirements in all indoor public spaces, and advice to work from home wherever possible.
Switzerland now has a much higher infection rate than many countries in Europe, racking up 5,596 new cases overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, and around 394 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, according to Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset at a Federal Office of Public Health press conference on Tuesday.
“The situation is worsening, and worsening fast,” Berset told a news conference in Bern.
“Three weeks ago, we had a situation that was among the best on the European continent,” he said. “Three weeks later, we have one of the worst situations as far as Europe goes.
In fact, Switzerland now is tallying double the amount of new infections per capita, as compared to Italy (170 per 100,000) and four times as many as neighbouring Germany (90 per 100,000). Overall, Switzerland has the fifth highest number of cases on the continent behind the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC).
What does the WHO advise? “It’s important that all governments focus on the fundamentals that helped to break the chains of transmission and save both lives and livelihoods,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking at a press briefing on Monday.
“This means active case finding, cluster investigations, isolating all cases, quarantining contacts, ensuring good clinical care, supporting and protecting health workers and protecting the vulnerable. We are in this for the long haul. But there is hope, that if we make smart choices together, we can keep cases down. Ensure essential services continue and children can still go to school. We all have a part to play.”
Dr Tedros said he was “encouraged” by the measures that some governments are taking – most of northern Europe has responded by clamping on night-time curfews, limited lockdowns, closures of restaurants and businesses, and the imposition of stricter limits on public and private gatherings.
But the WHO director general also warned that public “fatigue” was also a worry – without widespread adherence to rules about masks, social distancing and hand sanitation – trends could continue to escalate out of control.
“The virus has shown that when we lead our guard down, it can surge back at breakneck speed,” Dr Tedros said.