Minsk, Belarus, 11 April 2020

Dr Batyr Berdyklychev, WHO Representative Belarus

  • Good afternoon everybody and special thanks to the government of Belarus for inviting a WHO mission at this special time of COVID-19 pandemic. The Minister of Health provided critical support for the team to ensure that they had full access to information, healthcare professional, and facilities, and I am very grateful for that.
  • The reported COVID-19 cases in Belarus have surpassed 1,000 this week with a doubling of cases every two to three days. The situation is evolving rapidly.  We have entered a new phase and are therefore at a pivotal moment in the outbreak response. The actions taken over the next days, weeks and months will be critical to saving lives. This mission was indeed extremely timely.
  • As you know, the mission arrived in Minsk this past Tuesday to work with national and local authorities on aspects of the COVID-19 response. These areas included epidemiology and surveillance, laboratory services, patient management, infection prevention and control and risk communication.
  • The objective was to work together in each of the technical areas outlined above to understand the virus’s transmission patterns and the response activities undertaken in Belarus; and to assess the risks and provide guidance on possible actions aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Belarus.
  • During the past three days, the team had a very intense agenda, which allowed them to visit healthcare facilities, public health centers, laboratories, and emergency centers at the national, regional, and city levels.
  • They were also able to meet with representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, and Social Welfare; and see the actions of the Ministry Transportation on our arrival by land and air. Understanding how the different sectors come together in responding to COVID-19 has been invaluable.   
  • I am giving now the floor to Dr Patrick O’ Connor who has been leading the WHO mission to share with you the key observations, recommendations, and conclusions.  With each mission conducted, we are learning how to better response to COVID-19 and this mission will also help us assist other countries.

Dr Patrick O’Connor, Team Lead WHO COVID-19 mission

Observations

  • Good afternoon everybody. Let me join Dr. Berdyklychev in thanking the Ministry of Health for their tremendous support during the past three days as well as the Country Office for assisting and guiding us. Let me go straight to the main observations from the mission.
  • Testing suspect cases, tracing their contacts and isolating the sick is the cornerstone of the response to COVID-19. Belarus has implemented containment measures thanks to its surveillance and epidemiology systems and laboratory capacity able to detect COVID-19 patients early on.
  • The above-mentioned interventions have provided evidence of the rapid increase in cases every 2 to 3 days indicating the beginning of community transmission.
  • At the same time the country has been focusing on organizing the work of hospitals, polyclinics and emergency medical services to manage patients and prevent healthcare associated transmission.
  • The safety of healthcare workers and patients is treated as a priority. Efforts and measures are being taken to meet the needs of infection prevention and control, including increasing local production of equipment and supplies.
  • We would like to commend the commitment to domestic production of protective equipment for health care workers through repurposing of private sector’s capacity. This is very much needed from countries across Europe and the globe and it is indeed remarkable the attention Belarus is placing on this critical issue.
  • In addition, we have observed emphasis on planning and surge capacity to manage COVID-19 patients and at the same continue essential health services, including for chronic diseases, maternal health and mental health.
  • However, let me say that any health system can be drained by COVID-19, and no country is exception.

Recommendations

  • As already highlighted, Belarus has entered a new phase in the evolution of the outbreak where we see community transmission occurring, particularly in some parts of the country, including the capital Minsk. This situation is concerning and warrants new measures to complement those already put in place.
  • Our recommendation to all countries throughout the pandemic has been for strong government commitment and leadership to implement a mix of interventions, a blended approach of containment and mitigation measures together with community engagement tailored to the virus spread scenario.
  • As Belarus enters a new transmission scenario, our recommendation is to introduce community-wide measures to increase physical distancing along with the strong test-trace-isolate measures that have been implemented thus far.
  • Physical distancing measures refer to
    • postponing people gatherings including sporting and cultural events;
    • quarantining contacts of confirmed patients and people potentially exposed to the virus;
    • introducing options for teleworking, distance learning and suspension of nonessential business;
    • reducing non-essential movements, especially for high-risk groups.
  • Community-wide public health measures that include physical distancing actions can help prevent and slowdown the spread of the virus while health care facilities equip themselves with the appropriate capacity in terms of health care workers, beds, isolation wards, intensive care units and protective equipment to address a potential increase of cases.
  • Let me highlight the importance of the terminology here. Physical distance is not social isolation and people need to be supported through clear risk communication and mental health services. This needs to be accompanied with continuation of essential health services and socio-economic support for those in-need, with special attention to the most vulnerable.
  • It becomes critical that all levels in the government – from the highest to the local levels - engage the community in understanding the risks and the measures to protect themselves to contribute to the response. This includes helping citizens to appreciate the importance of hand hygiene and cough etiquette and explaining why society-wide measures – such as postponing gatherings or curtailing movement – need to be introduced.

Conclusions

  • Let me conclude by saying:
    • now is the time to scale-up efforts, while continuing and expanding the good work done so far in testing all suspect cases, tracing contacts of confirmed patients, and isolating the sick ones;
    • now is the time to prepare for worst-case scenarios, activating contingency plans to enable hospitals to cope with case surge and train and protect the health care workers;
    • now is the time to strengthen the engagement of the whole-of-government and the whole-of-society. While COVID-19 is a health issues, the response to this virus requires the participation of everyone, from the government, the healthcare workers, the private sector, and the community all working in concert to ensure a robust response.
  • This is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to be prepared for outbreak response activities continuing and evolving over the next 12 to 18 months.  The actions taken in Belarus will have impact throughout Europe and the world – this virus has connected us.
  • WHO reiterates its support to Belarus and are prepared to extend our efforts in strengthening the current response efforts as well as assisting in the response to the challenges of the next phase of this pandemic.
  • The summary of our recommendations that we shared with you today will be made public on WHO channels.