WHO: “The pandemic does not mean life has to stop”

WHO: “The pandemic does not mean life has to stop”
© iStock/diegograndi

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addresses the pandemic, discussing risk, long term care, and a new behavioural science advisory group.

On 30 July Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), delivered a virtual address covering the progress of the WHO in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting pressing issues which still remain and announcing the launch of a new WHO Technical Advisory Group on behavioural and social sciences.

The Director General commended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the measures it has put in place to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19 during the Hajj, saying: “This is a powerful demonstration of the kinds of measures that countries can and must take to adapt to the new normal. It’s not easy, but it can be done. The pandemic does not mean life has to stop. We must all learn to live with the virus, and to take the steps necessary to live our lives, while protecting ourselves and others – especially those at highest risk of COVID-19.”

Elderly care

Dr Ghebreyesus highlighted the heightened risk posed by COVID-19 to elderly patients, in particular to those living in long term care facilities. “In many countries, more than 40% of COVID-19-related deaths have been linked to long term care facilities, and up to 80% in some high income countries,” he said. “Recognising the critical nature of this issue, WHO has released a policy brief on preventing and managing COVID-19 in long term care facilities. The brief lists key actions that must be taken by policymakers and national and local authorities to protect older people. These range from integrating long term care in the national response, to mobilising adequate funding, to ensuring strong infection prevention and control, to providing support for family and voluntary caregivers; and much more…I especially want to acknowledge those who work in long term care facilities all over the world, who are doing heroic work to save lives and protect those in their care. I salute you.”

The policy brief, titled Preventing and managing COVID-19 across long-term care services, was published on 24 July; and includes 11 key policy objectives for the prevention and management of COVID-19 within long term care settings. Each policy objective detailed in the brief is augmented with a list of potential actions which facilities can implement, as well as real world examples of actions which have already been taken to achieve the relevant objective. Building on currently available evidence on the most effective measures taken to prepare for and respond to the pandemic, the brief also issues a number of recommendations for ways in which the long term care can be transformed in order to ensure that elderly patients are able to receive safe, quality care which does not infringe on their rights, freedoms or dignity.

“Although older people are at a higher risk of severe disease, younger people are at risk too. One of the challenges we face is convincing younger people of this risk,” Dr Ghebreyesus cautioned, adding: “Evidence suggests that spikes of cases in some countries are being driven in part by younger people letting down their guard during the northern hemisphere summer. We have said it before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible. Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others. That’s why young people must take the same precautions to protect themselves and protect others as everyone else. They can be leaders – they should be leaders and drivers of change.”

Misinformation, collective action, and behaviour

“All of us have a role to play in reducing our risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the Director General said. “Every day, we all make decisions that affect our health, and the health of those around us, in many ways. Reliable information is extremely important in enabling people to make the right decisions for their health. We have all seen the harm done by misinformation – but information alone is not enough. People make decisions based on a wide range of factors to do with their culture, beliefs, values, economic circumstances and more. They make decisions under unprecedented financial and social pressure, high levels of anxiety and with ill-equipped health systems.

“Countries have been asking their citizens to understand their risk; to adapt; to engage; to give up to things they value and that define them. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries are using a range of tools to influence behaviour: information campaigns are one tool, but so are laws, regulations, guidelines and even fines. We are learning what works and what doesn’t. That’s why behavioural science is so important – it helps us to understand how people make decisions, so we can support them to make the best decisions for their health.”

Behavioural research can offer valuable insights into the actions and reactions of the public during a time of unprecedented turmoil; and can thereby assist policymakers and stakeholders to act in the best way to shore up public safety and minimise public unease. Researchers have drawn attention to the immediate significance of research and data in the fields of public threat perception; leadership; the communication of scientific information; and issues around isolation, stress and coping, among others.

Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health

Concluding his address, Dr Ghebreyesus announced the creation by the WHO of a Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health, saying: “This broadens and deepens WHO’s existing work on behavioural science; and will support our work to offer health advice that is not only stronger, but more effective. The technical advisory group consists of 22 outside experts from 16 countries, with expertise in areas including psychology, anthropology, health promotion, neuroscience, behavioural economics, social marketing and more. This new group will advise WHO on how to increase and improve the use of behavioural and social sciences in a range of health areas, including COVID-19.”

The expert group will hold a consultative role, building on existing initiatives to develop and deliver guidance and recommendations to the WHO and identifying key priority areas for implementation of their proposals.

This article is from issue 14 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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