The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday that it would resist being dragged into a blame game over which country was responsible for the coronavirus pandemic and urged governments to move swiftly to deal with the situation instead of being “paralysed by the fear of failure”.
As the number of cases being reported daily worldwide now exceeds the peak daily new infections reported by China at the height of its epidemic in February, the head of the UN agency’s health emergencies programme, Michael Ryan, said at a briefing that a major worry was that “everyone is afraid of the consequences of error”.
“The greatest error is not to move,” he said. “The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure. And I think that’s the single biggest lesson I’ve learned in Ebola responses in the past.”
At the same briefing, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Europe had become the epicentre of the pandemic.
As of early Friday, some 162,000 infections had been reported in 123 countries and territories, with more than 5,000 fatalities, he said.
While China was the early focal point of the outbreak, infections have drastically slowed there and the disease is now gripping the European continent. Italy is the worst affected country after China, with 1,266 dead and 17,660 confirmed cases since the contagion first surfaced there on February 21.
Spain, the worst-affected European country after Italy, reported a 50 per cent jump in fatalities to 120 on Friday. Infections increased to 4,231.
Attention has shifted from Milan to Madrid, where Spanish Prime Minister Pedros Sanchez warned the number of confirmed cases could jump to 10,000 next week.
“We are only in the first phase of the fight against the virus. Very hard weeks await us,” he said as he announced a state of alarm for the country.
Part of Catalonia has already been locked down, but the main concern lies in Madrid, where all shops except those selling food and necessities are now closed.
At least four countries – Poland, Denmark, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – announced they would completely shut their borders.
Tedros said the WHO’s main message to countries was to continue to employ a multipronged approach to deal with the outbreak.
“You must take a comprehensive approach, not testing alone, not contact tracing alone, not quarantine alone, not social distancing alone. Do it all,” he said.
“Any country that looks at the experience of other countries with large epidemics and thinks ‘that won’t happen to us’ is making a deadly mistake,” he said. “It can happen to any country.”
Tedros said the experience of countries now seeing a slower rate of new infections – China, South Korea and Singapore, among others – “clearly demonstrates that aggressive testing and contact tracing combined with social distancing measured measures and community mobilisation can prevent infections and save lives”.
When Ryan was asked which country was faring well in its coronavirus response, he said: “We are not seeking to identify those who are doing poorly or doing well. We’re trying to identify the best lessons we can all use and the best way to move forward together.
“No one has done perfectly and no one has made all the mistakes. We share all the errors together, so we will share failure in the same way we will share success.”
Ryan’s comments came as the US and China escalated their sparring over who was to blame for the pandemic. In a rare televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump called the outbreak a “foreign virus”.
Some of his allies, including Republican Senator Rick Scott and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, referred to it as the “Chinese coronavirus” or the “Wuhan virus”.
On the other side of the coin, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian left many baffled as he tweeted on Thursday with claims that it was the US military that brought the virus to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where a bulk of China’s Covid-19 infections and deaths occurred.
In response, the US state department summoned the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, on Friday.
A state department spokesman said the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, David Stilwell, gave a very “stern representation” of the US government’s position on the matter to Cui.
Friday’s briefing at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters was the first held with no journalists present, as part of recommended social distancing measures.
WHO officials did not address Trump’s 30-day travel ban on 26 European countries, which was announced on Wednesday night.
Ryan said while each country must decide on the course of action to take to protect its population, “we’ve also consistently said that blanket travel measures in their own right will do nothing to protect an individual state”.
“In fact, many countries who have outright travel bans early in this response, ended up importing cases anyway, and may have reacted later than they should have because they assumed travel restrictions would protect them,” he said.
Trump, under fire for his administration’s languid response to the outbreak, declared a national emergency on Friday, freeing up money and waiving some regulations to deal with the outbreak.
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