The World Health Organisation chief warned reporters on Monday that “the worst is yet ahead of us” in the coronavirus pandemic, reviving the alarm just as many countries ease restrictive measures aimed at reducing its spread.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus didn’t specify why he believes the outbreak, which has infected about 2.5 million people and killed more than 166,000, would get worse. But he and others have previously pointed to the spread of the illness through Africa, where health systems are far less developed.
“Trust us. The worst is yet ahead of us,” Tedros told reporters from WHO headquarters in Geneva. “Let’s prevent this tragedy. It’s a virus that many people still don’t understand.”
Some Asian and European governments have gradually eased or started to relax “lockdown” measures such as quarantines, school and business closures and restrictions on public gatherings, citing a decline in the growth of Covid-19 case counts and deaths.
Mr Tedros and his agency have been on the defensive after President Donald Trump of the United States – the WHO’s biggest single donor – last week ordered a halt to US funding for the agency, saying it had botched its early response to the outbreak.
Among other things, Mr Trump insisted the WHO had failed to adequately share information about the virus “in a timely and transparent” way after it erupted in China late last year.
Mr Tedros said: “There is no secret in WHO because keeping things confidential or secret is dangerous. It’s a health issue.”
“This virus is dangerous. It exploits cracks between us when we have differences,” he said.
Mr Tedros said staff from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had been seconded to work with his agency, suggesting it was a sign of the WHO’s transparency.
“Having CDC staff [at the WHO] means there is nothing hidden from the US from Day One” Mr Tedros said. “Our CDC colleagues also know that we give information immediately to anyone.”
In one of his starkest comparisons yet, the UN health agency chief also referred to the so-called Spanish flu more than a century ago, saying the coronavirus has a “very dangerous combination … like the 1918 flu that killed up to 100 million people.”
Mr Tedros called the illness “Public Enemy No. 1”.
He said: “We have been warning from day one: This is a devil that everybody should fight.”