SINGAPORE: Framing the decision to impose COVID-19 lockdowns versus reopening economies as a choice between public health and the economy is a "false" dichotomy, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday (Sep 17).
"That is a false choice," said Dr Tedros in a pre-recorded message played at the final instalment of the National Univerity of Singapore's (NUS) COVID-19 Updates from Singapore webinars. "WHO is urging countries to focus on four essential priorities."
The first priority is to prevent amplifying events from large gatherings, such as at stadiums and nightclubs, which have seen "explosive outbreaks"; and the second is to protect the vulnerable, to save lives and to reduce the burden on the health system.
Thirdly, there is a need to educate communities on physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and the wearing of masks to curb transmission; and lastly, to find, isolate, test and care for cases, as well as trace and quarantine their contacts.
"There are already many examples of countries that have effectively prevented or control their outbreaks by doing these four things, and doing them well," he said, listing New Zealand, Iceland, Senegal, Mongolia and Singapore as examples.
"The common theme in all these countries is a commitment to national unity and global solidarity."
He also said that more than 170 countries have joined a global plan to distribute vaccines fairly around the world, and that the WHO's top priority for a vaccine is safety. The deadline to join the programme, known as COVAX, is Friday.
"The first vaccine to be approved may not be the best. The more shots on goal that we have, the higher the chances of having a very safe, very efficacious vaccine," said Dr Tedros.
"We already face challenges with vaccine acceptance for many proven vaccines. We cannot risk having an effective vaccine for COVID-19 that people refuse because of the perception it is unsafe," he added.
"But the greatest test we face now is not scientific or technical. It's a test of character: Can countries come together in solidarity to share the fruits of research, or will misguided nationalism reinforce the inequalities and injustices that have blighted our world?"
Warning that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic, Dr Tedros said that the world must be ready when the next outbreak hits.
"It has never been clearer that health is a political and economic choice. In the past 20 years, countries have invested heavily in preparing for terrorist attacks but relatively little in preparing for the attack of a virus, which, as the pandemic has proven, can be far more deadly, disruptive and costly," he said.
Dr Tedros' message opened the webinar where 16 public health experts from Singapore and around the world spoke, either live on Zoom or in recorded videos.
Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) director of medical services Kenneth Mak gave an overview of Singapore's COVID-19 situation, elaborating on some of the lessons learned from the country's fight against the coronavirus.
Having government agencies work together to lead a "whole ... nation" effort has been one important factor, while traditional principles of managing infection clusters, contact tracing and isolation have proven to be effective, he said.
He highlighted that while Singapore has reported more than 57,000 COVID-19 cases, and that currently, only 40-odd people remain in hospital. About 490 people with mild symptoms are housed at community care facilities.
"We added on also a recognition of patients who are vulnerable and at high risk of ... adverse outcomes," he said, adding that those at higher risk of severe complications were identified for closer monitoring and treatment.
"By protecting those that are vulnerable, we've managed to keep the morbidity and complication rates low here in Singapore."
Other experts who spoke at the webinar hosted by the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine included the school's dean, Professor Chong Yap Seng, Professor David Heymann from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Mr Patrick Drury, manager of WHO's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.