WHO worried Covid-19 'amnesia' will lead to another pandemic

People walk on a shopping street decorated for Christmas in central Barcelona, on Nov 30, 2020.
People walk on a shopping street decorated for Christmas in central Barcelona, on Nov 30, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

GENEVA (REUTERS) - The World Health Organisation's top emergency expert said on Monday (Nov 30) that the world risked future pandemics if it suffered "amnesia" and did not learn from the current coronavirus crisis.

"I have seen the amnesia that seems to descend upon the world after a traumatic event, and that's understandable," Mike Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.

"But if we do this again like we did after Sars, like we did after H5N1, like we did after H1N1 pandemic, if we continue to ignore the realities of what emerging and dangerous pathogens can do to our civilisation, then we are likely to experience the same or worse again within our lifetimes," he said.

Ryan also took a swipe at developed nations, saying that northern countries had been running healthcare systems "like low-cost airlines" and that the world was paying for that now.

"In the north, because of the cost model for health systems, we have designed our health systems to be delivered at 95%, 98%, at 100% efficiency. It's almost like a low-cost airline model for health service delivery," he said.

"Well, we're paying a price for that now, not having that extra-surge capacity built into the system - seeing health as a cost centre in our economy, seeing health as a drain on development, as dragging back the economy, and we need to re-address what that means."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also urged countries not to politicise the hunt for the origins of the new coronavirus, saying that would only create barriers to learning the truth.

"We need to know the origin of this virus because it can help us to prevent future outbreaks," Tedros said.

"There is nothing to hide. We want to know the origin, and that's it."

US President Donald Trump's administration, which has accused China of hiding the extent of the outbreak and the Geneva-based global health body of being too close to Beijing, has criticised the terms of a WHO-led international investigation into the origin of the pandemic.

Chinese state media have said the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, citing the presence of coronavirus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers saying it had been circulating in Europe last year.

Ski season

Ryan also urged nations to carefully consider the coming ski season's risks, as Switzerland runs lifts and Austria mulls following suit while Germany, Italy and France shutter mountain operations to slow the pandemic.

The WHO has advised against unnecessary holiday travel and highlighted dangers lurking in airport crowds or cramped restaurants and gondolas, but stopped short of a specific recommendation on whether countries should allow snow sports this winter.

The agency instead said nations should take a "risk-based approach", deciding which activities can go ahead and which should be postponed - and if they can't be postponed, how they can be done safely to minimise new infections. Permitting ski resorts to operate goes far beyond skiing itself, Ryan said.

"Many people won't be infected barrelling down the slopes on their skis. The real issues are going to come at airports, on buses, on ski lifts - pinch points in the skiing experience where people come together in large numbers," Ryan said.

"We would ask that all countries look at the ski season and other reasons for mass gatherings and look very, very carefully at the associated risks."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government on Monday urged European Union member states not to undermine pandemic - slowing contact restrictions by allowing early-season skiing, a sharp contrast to the Swiss whose high-altitude resorts have been open for weeks - with masks required on lifts - in a nod to the nation's tourism economy.

Austria Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has left the door open to skiing in coming weeks, while France keeps lifts closed at Christmas and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has told his country "holidays on the snow" would not be possible.