One year of WHO/Europe’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic
24 January 2021 marks 1 year since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the WHO European Region. The Regional Incident Management Support Team (IMST), WHO/Europe’s COVID-19 response mechanism, had been activated the day before, as countries in the Region were getting ready in case the “novel coronavirus” detected in China reached them.
The 1-year timeline of WHO/Europe’s response to COVID-19, released today, highlights the key events that unfolded as the Regional Office addressed the challenges of this pandemic and ultimately saved lives. It also serves as a starting point to improve our preparedness for, and response to, emergency health events in the future, and to build back better.
“2020 was a year that will be remembered for generations, for having put the lives and livelihoods of everyone under an unprecedented stress test,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Health systems and emergency responses had to be urgently and radically reshaped to address public needs, while the links between health and the economy have been shown to be greater than we could have ever imagined. The past year has put health firmly at the heart of social values, including equity, solidarity and participation”.
Turning preparedness into response
The speed of spread was dramatic, and WHO/Europe’s Health Emergencies Programme (WHE) reacted quickly. WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” in late January, officially named it as COVID-19 in February, and characterized it as a pandemic a month later.
Starting from early January 2020, the WHE team in the Regional Office rapidly mobilized to respond to the urgent needs of European Region countries facing a new viral threat, with a response grounded on solid preparedness foundations.
“Building on years of work and experience, countries in the European Region were put on alert to detect COVID-19 cases, identify symptoms and transmission routes, and establish prevention and control strategies,”said Dr Dorit Nitzan, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director for the European Region. “We were expecting the first European cases in a matter of days. When the first case in Europe was reported to us, our response mechanism was already primed and ready to go.”
The extensive infrastructure that had been established for influenza in WHO/Europe was swiftly repurposed for the COVID-19 response. Regional networks were activated to ensure the rapid detection, confirmation and description of the first cases of COVID-19 in the European Region. These networks, jointly led with the European Centre for Diseease Prevention and Control (ECDC), also helped to build understanding of the virus, its clinical symptoms, the routes through which it was transmitted and the severity of the infection.
Support to countries paramount
Working with countries to contain the pandemic and minimize its socioeconomic impacts was and continues to be WHO/Europe’s priority. The Regional Office facilitated information flow and provided technical, policy and operational support 24/7; it helped to analyse gaps and adapt guidance to local situations and contexts; and it drove the pandemic response while strengthening health systems.
In 2020, WHO/Europe conducted 165 missions to 22 countries and territories. The first of these country missions took place in Kyrgyzstan in early February, shortly followed by expert teams arriving in Serbia and Tajikistan, as well as virtual missions to Armenia and Kosovo.
WHO/Europe placed experts on the ground, mobilized networks of partners under the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and facilitated the deployment of emergency medical teams from one country to another.
Communicating from a fresh platform
COVID-19 is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to share information in real-time.
On 20 February 2020, WHO/Europe launched the COVID-19 regional situation dashboard with data reported from European Region Member States on COVID-19 cases and deaths, and information on the implementation of public health and social measures. By the end of December 2020, the dashboard had received over 8 million visits.
COVID-19 has dominated headlines and public discourse across the Region and the globe. The rise of a COVID-19 infodemic – an overabundance of information – has made the need for evidence-based, timely and understandable information even more important. WHO/Europe has focused on clear and consistent communication and community engagement directly with the public through social media, apps and surveys, and indirectly through the press. In 2020, the WHO Regional Director for Europe made 44 public statements and reached out extensively on social media channels.
Lessons learned are key to future success
This “living timeline” of WHO’s response to COVID-19 in the European Region looks back in time, providing an opportunity for analysis and identifying lessons learned to guide our work in the future.
- Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated gaps in many countries’ preparedness and response investments. This underlines the need to rethink and plan how to make health systems more resilient to emergencies.
- Secondly, strategic planning based on the assessment of strengths and weaknesses and on the hazards a country is prone to, is key to effective response. This includes establishing public health emergency operations centres, command-and-control operational systems, and innovative approaches for testing, treatment, transmission control, vaccination and communication.
- Thirdly, COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated that a coherent, whole-of-government and whole-of-society response is vital for effective response management. This ensures that policy-making is coordinated, consistent, inclusive and reflects the evolving needs of all population groups.
Building back better
From the beginning of the pandemic, WHO/Europe embedded recovery and building back better in response efforts and plans. As the Regional Office and countries are learning from the COVID-19 experience, this has offered an unprecedented opportunity to identify health system gaps and begin to fill them.
Preparing for a “new reality”, the Regional Director convened a Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development to provide independent advice to WHO/Europe on rethinking policy priorities, and to offer recommendations on investments and reforms to improve the resilience of health and social care systems. These recommendations are due in September this year.
2020 has taught us that health is not something we can take for granted, and health care is only truly effective and protective if everyone has equitable access. If we want to protect ourselves and each other from future crises, no one can be left behind.