Global Response to the COVID-19 Catastrophe
Padmini Murthy MD, MPH, FRSPH, FAMWA
Secretary General, Medical Women’s International Association
COVID-19 has unleashed unimaginable chaos, death and destruction on the global community and we seem to be powerless to stop its unrelenting effects. This brief article gives a snapshot of the efforts being made globally by the United Nations and its agencies and counties in the fight against the pandemic and personal reflections of the author.
Efforts by United Nations Agencies
COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund
On March 11, 2020, The World Health Organization, (WHO), UN Foundation and Swiss Philanthropy have partnered to launch first-of-its-kind COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to address the tremendous challenge which has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. This fund which has the distinction of being the first of its kind is a platform to enable individuals, corporations and institutions globally in the world to come together to directly contribute to global response efforts being made. This initiative has the support of multinationals such as Facebook and Google. As of March 28th, the total amount raised so far is USD 112,980,333 from over 205,000 doors worldwide.1
World Health Organization
On March 27, 2020, the WHO launched a What’s App health messaging alert in Arabic, French and Spanish partnering with Face Book and What’s App. This messaging service aims to reach 2 billion people to receive important updates and information about COVID-19. This service is an important source which provides the latest situation reports and numbers to the various national governments to assist in policy and decision making. Please see the instructions on how to access this service below .2
Arabic Send “مرحبا” to +41 22 501 70 23 on WhatsApp wa.me/41225017023?text=مرحبا
French Send “salut” to +41 22 501 72 98 on WhatsApp wa.me/41225017298?text=salut
Spanish Send “hola” to +41 22 501 76 90 on WhatsApp wa.me/41225017690?text=hola
English Send “hi” to +41 79 893 18 92 on WhatsApp wa.me/41798931892?text=hi
The service can be accessed by a link that opens a conversation on WhatsApp. Users can simply type “hi,” “salut,” “hola,” or “مرحبا” to activate the conversation, prompting a menu of options that can help answer their questions about COVID-19.”2
As a part of the ongoing global efforts to address the pandemic, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched a $ 2 billion coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight Covid -19 on March 25, 2020.This was a virtual launch and the Secretary-General was joined by Ms. Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, Dr Tedros, the Director-General of WHO, and Mr. Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General UN for Humanitarian Affairs. There was a release of 60 million USD from the CERF (UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund) as the initial investment to kick start the emergency fund. One of the main objectives of the CERF allocation is to support the World Food Program (WFP) so as to ensure the much needed assistance and support on various levels, such as transport of aid workers, and non-interruption of supply chains of relief supplies is ensured. In addition, this initiative aims to provide support to efforts addressing food security, physical and mental wellbeing, nutrition and protection of populations globally, in order to continue uninterrupted the much needed humanitarian and relief efforts.3
India has ordered a total lock down of the country since March 24th for 3 weeks. A sanitation drive was launched in the metropolitan city of Bangalore to contain the spread of COVID-19 and prevent the outbreak of an epidemic in all the 198 wards. Drones and tractors fitted with jets were used to spray a solution of Sodium hypochrolite in the city.4
Interestingly South Korea was able to reign COVID-19 by other strategies which did not include a total shut down but used aggressive testing of the population. According to the S. Korean foreign minister Kyung-wha Kang there was a test developed in January by the research institutions and the pharmaceutical companies manufactured the tests as the principle of the response was testing is central. It is interesting to note that South Korea has used data from surveillance cameras, cellphones and credit card transactions to map the social connections of suspected cases, in order to contain the spread of the virus.5
Japan is another Asian country notable for its response. Interestingly, the approach used by Japan used differs from that in South Korea. They did not launch an aggressive testing campaign as South Korea nor order a complete shut down like India, but instead prevented the significant increase in community tracing by investigation and identification of infected individuals and tracing and monitoring their contacts.5
Singapore was one of the earliest countries to detect COVID-19, and in early February, the number of cases put the country on the top of the list in the region. The major contributors to the containment without exponential rise have been early on aggressive testing and transparent case reporting both nationally and internationally. There were swift and decisive interventions to promote or impose social distancing and frequent public health communications to the public. Interagency cooperation in the country was an effective strategy as well in containment in the number of cases without an exponential rise.6
Initially the strict regulations put Hong Kong in a virtual lock down, the region having experience dealing with the public health challenge due to SARS in 2003 (17 years ago). These regulations of working from home, closing restaurants , no public gatherings, and avoiding public transport were effective in that after 6 weeks, the number of reported cases were less than 110 in the city with a population of 7.5 million people. The arrival of overseas Hong Kong residents and relaxation of the rules contributed to an increase in the number of cases which has led to the ban on entry of nonresidents to the country and closure of restaurants and bars and maintenance of social distancing.7
United Arab Emirates
On March 26, the government of UAE implemented the” National Disinfection Program” to run till March 29, and this entails disinfection of public and private facilities and public. transportation. The announcement was made during a media briefing in the capital Abu-Dhabi by representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Interior. The importance of social distancing and avoiding large gatherings and social events was also highlighted at the press briefing. The Ministry of Health and Prevention and Ministry of Interior in coordination with all relevant federal and local institutions will be supervising this national effort to address the public health challenge of COVID-19.8
It is noteworthy that in spite of having the 5th highest number of COVID-19 cases, Germany has only had a fraction of the death toll that has been seen in other countries. This can be perhaps attributed to the restrictions on public gatherings and the closure of nonessential shops, bars, and restaurants. It is interesting to note that Chancellor Angela Markel, in a rare televised addresses, spoke to the nation to discuss the importance of national unity in addressing the public health challenge caused by COVID-19. Germany has an excellent intensive health care system which coupled with the rapid testing in the country has resulted in the low mortality rates. As of March 25, the country had a total of 149 deaths which represents a fatality rate of 0.5 percent.9
The public health response to COVID-19 has been varied in different parts of the world. It is important for the global community (all of us are stakeholders as citizens) to ascertain that there are social protection policies in place for all of us. Unfortunately, the access to social protection varies and is dependent on existing social determinants in a particular region, as has become evident even more in the past few weeks.
As a health care professional, this pandemic has brought out a range of emotions in me which include, anger, sadness, horror and frustration, to name of few. This pandemic will change the way people live and go about their business. It is crucial that the global community come together by setting aside political differences, working on innovative and effective solutions, addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, and accelerating the response to the catastrophe caused by COVID-19.
Unfortunately, I am saddened to note that in spite of the great numbers of women working as health care professionals across all disciplines globally, their voices are seldom heard, and they are often excluded from the decision making process. It is of utmost importance that the various task forces and leadership teams include more women on their teams in addressing this global pandemic.
It is no exaggeration to stress that there needs to be massive investments to public health in countries where this is a not a priority. Only then, will the world be better prepared and more resilient to effectively handle pandemics with minimal socioeconomic damage.
1.World Health Organization 2020. WHO, UN Foundation and partners launch first-of-its-kind COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. [online] .Available athttps://www.who.int/news-room/detail/13-03-2020-who-un-foundation-and-partners-launch-first-of-its-kind-covid-19-solidarity-response-fund. Accessed March 29.
2. World Health Organization 2020. WHO WhatsApp health alert launches in Arabic, French and Spanish. [online] .Available at https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen. Accessed March 29.
3. UNICEF 2020. COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. [online]. Available at
4. Kagire N, Deccan H. 2020.BBMP to sanitise Bengaluru using drones to spray disinfectant in public places. [online] .Available at : https://www.deccanherald.com/city/top-bengaluru-stories/bbmp-to-sanitise-bengaluru-using-drones-to-spray-disinfectant-in-public-places-817174.html. Accessed March 26.
5..Bieben J, NPR 2020. How South Korea Reined In The Outbreak Without Shutting Everything Down https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/26/821688981/how-south-korea-reigned-in-the-outbreak-without-shutting-everything-down. Accessed March 26.
6. Hsu LY, Tan MH. STAT 2020. What Singapore can teach the U.S. about responding to Covid-19. Available at : https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/23/singapore-teach-united-states-about-covid-19-response/ Accessed March 26.
7. Davidson. H., The Guardian 2020. We can’t let up: Hong Kong battles complacency amid new wave of Covid 19. Available at : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/27/we-cant-let-up-hong-kong-battles-complacency-amid-new-wave-of-covid-19 . Accessed March 26.
8. Emirates News Agency 2020. National Disinfection Programme aims to protect health of citizens, residents, visitors: Ministry of Health, Ministry of Interior. Available at: http://wam.ae/en/details/1395302833267. Accessed March 26.
9. Mai, H. J. Vox, 2020. The mystery of Germany’s low coronavirus death rate. Available at : https://www.vox.com/world/2020/3/27/21196246/coronavirus-germany-death-rate-covid-19-cases-italy-europe. Accessed March 27.