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Opinion

A “new normal” is in sight. Ensuring a balance | Analysis – analysis

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The Southeast Asia region of the World Health Organization (WHO) is entering a new phase in its pandemic response. In recent weeks, the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in the region has slowed, due to unprecedented physical distancing measures that countries implemented early and aggressive. Several member states are preparing for the transition to a “new normal” in which social and economic life can coexist with low disease transmission. To do so effectively, countries must continue to mobilize the full power of their approaches from across the government and across society.

The spread of Covid-19 continues to cause illness, death, and disruption. It has pushed even the most advanced healthcare systems to the limit. The crude death rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be over 3%, but it can change from country to country, and even within countries. Key variables include access to care and availability of evidence.

Member states in the region must continue to take evidence-based measures and carry out careful risk assessments before deciding to withdraw from public health and social measures. Due attention should be paid to the local epidemiology of Covid-19, including hot spots and clusters, and the ability of systems and responders to find, isolate, and manage quarantine cases and contacts.

Whatever the current transmission scenario in a country, there is no doubt that a long journey awaits us. In what will be a continuing fight against Covid-19, member states’ strategies must be comprehensive and meet immediate and long-term needs. Three priorities should chart the way forward: control and suppression of the spread, strengthening and maintenance of health services, and mutual support to stay safe and healthy.

To control and suppress the spread, we must fight the virus. Active case detection, isolation, testing, and contact tracing are the main ways to control the virus. In case of community transmission, they are vital to suppress it. Strengthening surveillance and follow-up contacts, in particular, will help national and local authorities quickly adapt to evolving outbreaks, whether moving from one case to a group of cases, or from a group of cases to no case.

Agility and innovation will be crucial, especially at the sub-national level, across borders and with mobile populations. For areas with limited transmission, responders should focus on finding and isolating all cases, providing appropriate care, and tracking, quarantining, and supporting all contacts. When sustained transmission occurs, they should reduce it to manageable groups, for which they may consider reintroducing physical distancing measures in a way that minimizes negative impacts.

To strengthen health services, all countries must first protect health workers. WHO continues to work with governments, industry and the pandemic supply chain network to overcome the global shortage of personal protective equipment. Health workers should be provided with gowns, gloves, medical masks and eye protection necessary to save lives and prevent infection.

Countries must continue to expand the isolation and capacity of the intensive care unit, while streamlining it. By networking Covid-19 treatment facilities, health leaders and managers can better share the burden between facilities. By implementing clear classification protocols, they will ensure that all patients with severe manifestations receive a prompt and safe admission to intensive care units. Rigorous infection prevention and control is required to prevent health facilities from facilitating transmission.

Ensuring that essential health services are maintained is vital. We must not only reduce mortality from Covid-19 itself, but also from vaccine-preventable diseases and other treatable conditions that can increase when health systems are overwhelmed. WHO will continue to support countries in the region to implement key guidelines on the maintenance of essential health services as they respond directly to Covid-19.

To achieve these results, member states must mobilize a government-wide and society-wide approach. Regular hand washing, coughing or sneezing at the elbow, and avoiding contact with people with flu-like symptoms are crucial. It is also important to follow the local and national orientation on physical distance. Avoid using tobacco, alcohol, and other substances that damage the immune system. Support health workers and say no to stigma.

Take care of your mental health and support others. It is natural to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared, or angry. Helpful coping strategies include getting enough rest, exercising, eating right, avoiding harmful substances, and staying in close contact with family and friends. WHO will continue to provide accessible and actionable information on how to cope with Covid-19-related stress and anxiety, and will support all member states to strengthen mental health services.

We must unite to address what is the greatest public health challenge of a generation. The region’s strategy to control and suppress the spread, strengthen and maintain health services, and support each other to stay safe, healthy, and healthy, will help all countries save lives and minimize impact. Our mission is clear. Our challenge is great. Together, move forward in the fight against Covid-19.

Poonam Khetrapal Singh is Regional Director, WHO Southeast Asia

The opinions expressed are personal.

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