WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 23 March 2020

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening, wherever you are.

Less than 6 months ago, WHO and FIFA signed an agreement to work together to promote health through football.

We didn’t know then what we know now – that a new virus would emerge that would bring many parts of society to a standstill – including the beautiful game.

Many football matches have stopped – but our collaboration has become even more important during these difficult times. In fact, it’s given us the opportunity of working together more closely than we imagined.

Football can reach millions of people, especially younger people, that public health officials cannot.

Today it’s my great pleasure to welcome my dear brother Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, to talk about our joint campaign to “Pass the message to kick out coronavirus”.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank FIFA for its generous contribution of US$10 million to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

To date, the fund has raised more than US$70 million, in just 10 days, from more than 187,000 individuals and organizations, to help health workers on the front lines to do their life-saving work, treat patients and advance research for treatments and vaccines.

I would also like to thank TikTok for its contribution of US$10 million, and for its valuable support in helping to reach its large, young audience with reliable health information.

Speaking of which, our new WhatsApp Health Alert has now attracted 10 million users since we launched it last Friday – this is just in 4 days –delivering reliable health information directly to their mobile phones. Details on how to sign up are on the front page of our website. The Arabic, French and Spanish versions will be launched this week, and this is the best way to be connected directly with people.

So thank you, Gianni, for your support, and the support of the whole footballing community.

I’d now like to give you the floor to say a few words, but I would also like to recognize that it’s your birthday today. So I would like to say happy birthday, my dear brother, and thank you so much for joining us today.

[MR GIANNI INFANTINO, PREISDENT OF FIFA MADE BRIEF REMARKS, FOLLOWED BY WHO GOODWILL AMBASSADOR ALISSON BECKER]

Thank you, Gianni and Alisson.

I’d now like to continue with the rest of my remarks on the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 300,000 cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO, from almost every country in the world. That's heartbreaking. 

The pandemic is accelerating. It took 67 days from the first reported case to reach the first 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000 cases and just 4 days for the third 100,000 cases. You can see how the virus is accelerating.

But we’re not prisoners to statistics. We’re not helpless bystanders. We can change the trajectory of this pandemic.

Numbers matter, because they’re not just numbers. They’re people, whose lives and families have been turned upside down.

But what matters most is what we do.

You can't win a football game only by defending. You have to attack as well.

Asking people to stay at home and other physical distancing measures are an important way of slowing down the spread of the virus and buying time – but they are defensive measures.

To win, we need to attack the virus with aggressive and targeted tactics –  testing every suspected case, isolating and caring for every confirmed case, and tracing and quarantining every close contact.

We recognize that some countries are struggling with the capacity to carry out these offensive measures. 

 

Several countries have shown that mobilizing resources internally from less-affected regions is one way to increase capacity.

We’re also grateful that several countries have sent Emergency Medical Teams to care for patients and train health workers in other countries that need support.

This is an incredible example of international solidarity. But it’s not an accident.

WHO has been working with countries for years to build a network of Emergency Medical Teams for exactly this eventuality, to provide surge capacity of high-quality health professionals who can be deployed to care for patients and save lives.

But health workers can only do their jobs effectively when they can do their jobs safely.

We continue to hear alarming reports from around the world of large numbers of infections among health workers.

Even if we do everything else right, if we don’t prioritize protecting health workers, many people will die because the health worker who could have saved their life is sick.

As you know, WHO has been working hard with many partners to rationalize and prioritize the use of personal protective equipment.

Addressing the global shortage of these life-saving tools means addressing every part of the supply chain, from raw materials to finished product.

Measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus may have unintended consequences by exacerbating shortages of essential protective gear, and the materials needed to make them.

Solving this problem requires political commitment and political coordination at the global level. This week, I will be addressing heads of state and government from the G20 countries. Among other issues, I will be asking them to work together to increase production, avoid export bans and ensure equity of distribution, on the basis of need.

We need unity in the G20 countries, who have more than 80% of global GDP. Political commitment at the G20 means strong solidarity that can help us to move forward and fight this pandemic in the strongest way possible.

The most important ask to G20 leaders is solidarity, to act as one, because they have the biggest stake in the world, in all respects.

We also recognize that there is a desperate need for effective therapeutics. There is currently no treatment that has been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

It’s great to see the level of energy now being directed to research against COVID-19.

Small, observational and non-randomized studies will not give us the answers we need. Using untested medicines without the right evidence could raise false hope, and even do more harm than good and cause a shortage of essential medicines that are needed to treat other diseases.

That’s why WHO has launched the SOLIDARITY trial, to generate robust, high-quality evidence as fast as possible. I’m glad that many countries have joined the SOLIDARITY trial, that will help us to move with speed and volume.

The more countries that sign up to the SOLIDARITY trial and other large studies, the faster we will get results on which drugs work, and the more lives we will be able to save.

I'd like to end by reminding everyone that although COVID-19 is dominating the world's attention, there's another respiratory disease that is both preventable and treatable, but which kills 1.5 million people every year - and that disease is the old-timer, tuberculosis. 

Tomorrow is World TB Day – an opportunity to remind world leaders of the commitments they have made to end the suffering and death caused by this ancient and terrible disease.

The world is rightly responding to COVID-19 with urgency and purpose. We call on the global community to harness that same urgency and purpose for the fight against tuberculosis – and for a healthier, safer, fairer world for everyone.

The rule of the game: to kick out coronavirus.

I thank you.