Copenhagen, 14 May 2020
Statement to the press by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
Good morning. It is a pleasure to speak to you today. Taking the European Region as a whole, we are seeing an overall slowing of the pandemic. Despite the positive signs, this remains a time of sorrow for many. My thoughts are with you.
As of today, there were 1.78 million confirmed cases, and 160,000 deaths in the Region, accounting for 43% of cases and 56% of deaths globally.
The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and Spain remain among the top 10 countries around the world reporting the most cases in the past 24 hours.
Whilst the risk across all countries in the European Region remains very high, it is in the east of the European Region where we are seeing continued rising case counts.
It is 16 weeks since we were notified of the first cases of novel coronavirus in the European Region. To check its exponential spread and buy our health systems precious time, countries introduced never-before seen restrictions on social interaction and individual movement. Life as we knew it, was put on hold. For the elderly, for the young, for those losing income and jobs, for those with anxiety, for people in treatment, and for all of us, the burden has been heavy, and the future uncertain. Despite this, we have seen an incredible show of solidarity in the behaviour of people and communities.
Today, in the 39 countries that are easing restrictions in the European Region, our behaviour remains as important now as ever before. In short, our behaviour, our choices, determine where this road leads us, and where it ends.
I have three messages today.
One – There’s no room for complacency – remain vigilant.
Two – Authorities need to listen to their publics and adapt accordingly, in real-time.
Three – Behave responsibly, we each shape the story of this pandemic.
So, to my first message today – We must remain vigilant.
Over the past week, clusters of new cases have emerged in places – Wuhan, and the Republic of Korea – where the virus had apparently disappeared. A timely reminder that the threat of virus resurgence is never far away. Vigilance and a continued determination to keep this virus at bay is needed as much during times of peak transmission as it is whilst restrictions are being eased.
Until a vaccine or treatments are at hand for everyone, limiting the virus requires a partnership of people and policy-makers – a social contract that extends beyond any government official’s or leader’s ability to control. Vigilance is an all of society responsibility.
Which brings me to my second message – Governments and authorities should employ ways to listen to their populations, earn trust and plan their pandemic response measures informed by this.
Situations change fast. Understanding how, why and the context in which people and communities respond to different pandemic response interventions helps inform government decisions, shape communications and guide the planning of measures.
That’s why here at the WHO Regional Office for Europe we have launched a tool to conduct regular surveys, and listen to people’s needs and concerns in these COVID-19 times. 20 countries are using this tool within our Region and at least 20 outside it. The results are revealing.
Take Germany. The country has been conducting weekly surveys since early March. Findings indicate that concern about the economic consequences of the restrictions remains high. This is set against declining worry and perceived risk from the virus itself, and falling compliance with recommended behaviours. The social data generated by the surveys helped to improve services to support mental health during the crisis, to develop material for families and children, to develop the content of websites for the elderly, to provide content for young people and dating and to develop specific information on the right way of wearing, preserving and cleaning facial masks.
In the Netherlands, the social survey found willingness to comply with quarantine and isolation was very high but that young males are the least willing to comply. The studies also reveal that (Dutch) children from disadvantaged backgrounds are hit harder by the school shutdown, and should receive extra care when schools re-open.
The United Kingdom Government has established an advisory group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science and the UK’s Department of Health has conducted weekly surveys looking at attitudes and awareness, with input from behavioural and psychological scientists.
A host of institutions and centres across Europe have considered how behavioural science can help tackle COVID-19. Among them, the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland, that found that adherence to measures was most likely when there is clear and frequent communication, strong group identity, and social disapproval for those who don’t comply. This, of course, has implications for language, leadership and day-to-day social interaction that can make or break the success and impact of a government policy or measure.
More countries are about to embark on regular surveys with WHO support, including Azerbaijan, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Ukraine; and as these countries move towards transition and adjusting pandemic measures, the insights gained will be highly valuable in informing decisions and ensuring these measures are appropriate.
My third message is this – We each have a role to play in keeping the virus at bay.
We are now at the fork in the road. This is the point at which our actions and individual behaviour determines which path we follow, one that sees us head towards a new normal, or one that sends us back to restrictions on our movement and social interactions.
Emergency fatigue threatens the precious gains we have made against this virus. Reports of distrust in authorities and conspiracy thinking are fueling movements against social and physical distancing. Others are behaving over-cautiously, which continues to limit their social interactions and access to health services, for example. Mistrust, resistance to measures, a disregard for the behavioural changes we have all made to limit COVID-19, will send us down the road none of us want to take.
Simply put, our behaviour today, will set the course for the pandemic.
As governments lift restrictions, you, the people become the main actors. It is an individual as well as a collective responsibility. Follow the recommendations of your national authorities, limit social interactions, keep washing your hands, maintain physical distancing and reduce risk to the most vulnerable in our society, the elderly and those with chronic underlying health conditions. They rely on the choices you make.
So, my three messages today:
One – Communities: Remain vigilant and protect the gains. Our complacency is COVID-19’s playground.
Two – Policy-makers: Keep attuned to what people are doing – listen, learn and adjust measures accordingly.
Three – To us all: we all have a role to play to keep COVID-19 at bay. Our behaviour determines COVID-19 behaviour.
It’s up to us now.