Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, says data on the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the state of public health systems and service delivery must guide member countries’ decisions and plans to reopen their borders and resume social life.
Speaking during PAHO’s COVID-19 digital briefing on Wednesday (September 16), Dr. Etienne said this approach must incorporate preventative measures to keep citizens safe, while urging local and national leaders to avoid “making decisions in a vacuum.”
“So, whether it’s restarting schools, reopening public markets, or resuming international travel, when and how we do it matters. It [means] that we must approach daily life in a new way that reduces risks and places health at the very centre of every decision that we make and policy that we implement,” she argued.
The PAHO Director said safeguards, including physical distancing, have proven to limit the spread of COVID-19, and “must become second nature.”
She contended that “rather than seeing them as a matter personal protection or even courtesy, these should be regarded as a civic responsibility of the individual.”
Against this background, Dr. Etienne maintained that national and local authorities are duty-bound to provide clear evidence-based guidance and ensure that individuals and businesses adhere accordingly.
“We saw this leadership early on when many countries implemented lockdowns and restricted gatherings. I daresay that we need the same level of commitment as these measures are lifted, so that everyone has the information and tools that they need to protect themselves and others,” she said.
Additionally, Dr. Etienne said countries must ensure that they have the staff, tools and resources in place to monitor and contain the virus.
“They must be prepared to carry out tests, conduct contact tracing, isolate and quarantine and ensure that there is enough hospital beds to care for patients who develop severe symptoms. If our health systems are not prepared… it is not the time to reopen,” she emphasised.
Dr. Etienne said the reasons informing regional countries’ decisions to resume public and social life are understandable, at a time when major infection control measures are still required as they await an approved vaccine.
“Children need to learn, families need money to eat and live, and global commerce cannot be restricted forever. But, we must be clear that opening up too early gives this virus more room to spread and puts our populations at greater risk,” she pointed out.
Noting that the Americas has, to date, recorded nearly 15 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 500,000 deaths, Dr. Etienne said “this is a stark reminder that countless people in our region remain vulnerable to infection, especially large populations that have not yet been exposed.”
“The success of our economies and the state of our societies depend on the health and safety of our people. This is a truth that I urge countries to embrace, as they make the decision to resume public life,” she added.