“We are at a critical juncture,” according to Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia
Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, speaks exclusively to The Hindu about a second wave of COVID-19 infection, fatigue among healthcare workers/general public and how countries in the northern hemisphere continue to be at a critical juncture in the fight against the pandemic.
We are now witnessing a second wave of COVID-19 infection across Europe and the U.S. What would public health experts attribute this resurgence to? Where does India stand at the moment?
We are at a critical juncture in this pandemic, particularly in the northern hemisphere. In India, recently we are seeing active cases plateau. Like the rest of the world, the country remains vulnerable to COVID-19. Now is the time to be even more alert. The pandemic is still not behind us. Our efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 transmission needs to be more vigorous now.
Governments across the world need to continue to further strengthen implementation of core public health measures – test, detect, isolate and treat – and continue to provide essential services. But, all of us, as individuals, we have our own responsibility: we must practise physical distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, and wear a mask when needed. We cannot let our guards down.
Are you seeing COVID-19 fatigue in various countries among the general public and healthcare workers?
The pandemic has impacted lives and livelihood. We understand the difficulties people continue to face – working from home or losing income, children being schooled remotely, not being able to celebrate milestones with friends and family or not being there with them in the most difficult times – it’s very tough and the COVID-19 fatigue is real. Health workers, who have themselves gone through immense stress and trauma, are still on the frontline, taking care of patients, and it is no surprise if they too are getting tired. And in addition, we do not know how long this pandemic will last.
We must do all what we can to protect health workers, and the best way to do that is for all of us to take every precaution we can to reduce the risk of transmission, for ourselves and others.
People must maintain physical distance, wear a mask, clean hands regularly, cough away from others, avoid crowds or meeting friends and family unless absolutely needed. Governments must continue to strengthen pandemic response, which includes core public health measures and maintaining and restoring essential health services impacted by COVID-19 outbreak. We must do all we can to break virus transmission chains.
What measures are the international agencies suggesting to tackle and live with this virus in long term?
Till such time there is a vaccine or a medicine to protect the world from COVID-19, our best defence against the virus remains the core public health measures we know to break the chain of transmission: hand hygiene, physical distancing, respiratory etiquette and masks.
Should schools be allowed to risk having children back? Now we know that this group can act as spreaders and super-spreaders?
From a public health perspective, deciding to close or re-open schools should be guided by a risk-based approach, taking into consideration the epidemiology of COVID-19 at the local level, the capacity of educational institutions to adapt their system to operate safely; the impact of school closures on educational loss, equity, general health and well-being of children; and the range of other public health measures being implemented outside school.
Decisions on full or partial closure or reopening should be taken at a local administrative level, based on the local level of transmission of COVID-19 and the local risk assessment, as well as how much the reopening of educational settings might increase transmission in the community.
Are international agencies talking about a long-term work/study from home for people/services that can be managed in this manner?
While the pandemic affects lives and livelihoods, it forces people to think of ways to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 forced upon them. With lockdowns imposed in several parts of the world, many organisations moved to working from home as a precautionary measure from the very start of the pandemic.
Many organisations continue to provide their staff the option to work remotely, wherever feasible, even after lockdowns have been lifted. Whether or not this will become a part of a new work culture globally, remains to be seen.