WHO declares coronavirus pandemic

Director general says his organisation is ‘deeply concerned … by alarming levels of inaction’

The world is now in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic, the director general of the World Health Organization has said, as he expressed deep concern about “alarming levels of inaction” in the fight against the spread of the disease.

In the past two weeks, the number of cases outside China has increased 13-fold, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have lost their lives.

“Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospital,” Tedros said at a briefing in Geneva. “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the many cases, the many deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”


The word pandemic should not be used lightly or carelessly, he said, nor should it be misused. “It doesn’t change what countries should do,” he said.

This pandemic was unlike any others in that it could be controlled, he said. The experience in China and South Korea, where the numbers of cases are falling, showed it was possible to turn things around. But many countries were not doing what was necessary.

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” he said.

Ghebreyesus was keen to stress that it was not too late to control the outbreak. The majority of cases – 90% of the 118,000 – are in just four countries: Italy, Iran, South Korea and China. “We can’t say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he said. He called on all countries to detect, test, treat, isolate, track contacts and mobilise their people in response to the pandemic.

“Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity, some countries are struggling with a lack of resources, some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve,” he said.

Asked which countries were failing to do enough, he and WHO’s director of emergencies, Dr Michael Ryan, refused to be specific. “You know who you are,” said Ryan. The WHO would not criticise its member states in public. But, he said, it was not enough to limit testing to small numbers of people who fitted risk criteria that might be out of date – people over a certain age with a history of travel to China, for instance.

Some countries had not established sufficient capacity for isolating people, he said. Other countries were too willing to give up on contact tracing too soon, which could help slow the spread. Some countries were not communicating well with their people, giving them the information they need to keep themselves and others safe.

The WHO warning came as the death toll from the virus in Italy rose by 31% in 24 hours to 827, and the government there began considering imposing even tighter restrictions on daily life and announced billions of euros in financial relief to cushion against the economic shock.

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice-president and two other cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. Iran reported another sharp rise in the number of deaths, by 62 to 354, behind only China and Italy.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, the director of Wellcome, welcomed the WHO move: “Infectious diseases do not respect borders. We need sustained and coordinated action by all governments and global institutions if we are to avert long-term catastrophe worldwide.”

He said that in recent weeks, decisive action by the WHO and many national governments had already reduced the impact of the virus and bought critical time for the international community.

“Now everyone, everywhere must use this short window of opportunity to intensify and maximise all efforts to contain this virus, prepare our health systems and communities for the inevitable impact.

“The decisions made in the coming days and weeks will be crucial. We can still change the course of this pandemic … We can reduce the impact of this pandemic and save lives around the world. But it needs all of us.”


Sarah Boseley Health editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Coronavirus: a disease that thrives on human error
When it comes to containing the outbreak, small mistakes will have big consequences for our health

Peter Beaumont in London, Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo and Kim Willsher in Paris

07, Mar, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
More new coronavirus cases outside China than inside, says WHO
Latest figures on new infections suggest Beijing’s strict response to the crisis is paying off

Sam Jones, Angela Giuffrida, Lorenzo Tondo and Kate Lyons

26, Feb, 2020 @2:10 PM

Article image
US and UK 'lead push against global patent pool for Covid-19 drugs'
Efforts to dilute world health assembly resolution on open licensing decried as ‘appalling’

Sarah Boseley Health editor

17, May, 2020 @12:08 PM

Article image
WHO team says theory Covid began in Wuhan lab ‘extremely unlikely’
Theories including virus jumping from animal to human or via frozen food being explored by team in China

Helen Davidson in Taipei

09, Feb, 2021 @2:28 PM

Article image
WHO halts hydroxychloroquine trial for coronavirus amid safety fears
Malaria drug taken by Trump could raise risk of death and heart problems, study shows

Staff and agencies

25, May, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
Test and trace: lessons from Hong Kong on avoiding a coronavirus lockdown
Semi-autonomous city followed WHO advice and moved swiftly to stem contagion without rigid curbs on movement

Sarah Boseley Health editor

17, Apr, 2020 @10:30 PM

Article image
Italy’s large elderly population bearing brunt of coronavirus
Many have underlying conditions, making fight against Covid-19 more complex

Lorenzo Tondo and Angela Giuffrida

03, Mar, 2020 @5:38 PM

Article image
US stays away as world leaders agree action on Covid-19 vaccine
Video meeting seen as global endorsement of WHO and sign of Trump’s isolation on world stage

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

24, Apr, 2020 @4:55 PM

Article image
China's Sars-like illness worries health experts
China’s viral pneumonia outbreak may have jumped species barrier, raising fears of pandemic

Sarah Boseley Health editor

09, Jan, 2020 @7:10 PM

Article image
Iran's deputy health minister: I have coronavirus
Feverish Iraj Harirchi says disease ‘doesn’t distinguish between statesman and ordinary citizen’

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

25, Feb, 2020 @1:30 PM