The WHO said what?
A number of people are now claiming on social media that the WHO, which in this case is short for the World Health Organization, has just “reversed” its position and now “admits” that Covid-19 coronavirus lockdowns are harmful. For example, Maxime Bernier, a former Member of the Canadian Parliament, tweeted the following on Sunday:
And then on Monday, there was this tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump:
Trump tweeting that he was right about something? Shocking. But the WHO “admitting” that Trump was right? What? From the WHO? When? Where exactly was he getting this stuff?
Well, supposedly it came from what David Nabarro, MS, MBBS, a medical doctor and Special Envoy on Covid-19 for the WHO, said during an interviewwith the British magazineThe Spectator. Take a look at the relevant bits of the interview in the video accompanying the following tweet:
Hmmm. Nabarro did mention lots of words during his response, such as “lockdown”, “holidays”, “ghastly” and “catastrophe.” But at no point did he specifically mention Trump.
As you can see, Nabarro said, “We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as theprimarymeans of control of this virus.” Note the word “primary” here. He did not say, “do not advocate lockdowns as a means of control of this virus.” Nabarro continued by saying, “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.” Note the words “rather not do it” as opposed to “should not do it” or “will not do it.”
Nabarro went on to describe how “lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.” He added, “Look what’s happened to smallholder farmers all over the world. Look what’s happening to poverty levels. It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.” So basically, Nabarro was pointing out the potentially serious negative consequences of lockdowns. That, of course, makes sense.
So, where exactly was the “reversal” of the WHO’s position? Did Nabarro actually “admit” something new? Not really. Again, pay attention to the words “primary” and “rather not do it.” Nabarro really never said that lockdowns should not be used at all and that everything should be opened now and kept open forever.
Nabarro simply was reemphasizing what the WHO and many public experts have been saying all along: the way to tackle the Covid-19 coronavirus is through layering various policies and interventions in a coordinated, organized way. It’s not as if scientific experts have been claiming that “lockdowns are great” or saying “lockdowns, ooh la la” or “lockdowns, more of this please.” Implementing lockdowns is not like eating avocado toast. They (lockdowns and not avocado toast) can clearly have serious negative consequences. No one really welcomes lockdown, unless perhaps you are starting an online business that sells toilet paper and is named “Toil Not Paper” or “Don’t Toil, Let Me Give You Paper.” Lockdowns certainly are not the only things that should be done to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
In fact, no country in the world has really remained under lock down throughout the course of the pandemic. Quite the opposite. Consider the countries that have been most successful at responding to the pandemic to date. New Zealand, for example, opted for the “go hard and go early” route: aggressively closing things up quickly to prevent the Covid-19 coronavirus from getting a foothold (or maybe a spikehold) in the country. Such early action kept the number of cases from low to zero, allowing New Zealand to re-open again and more effectively contain any subsequent outbreaks,as I described previously forForbes. Similarly, since the start of pandemic, Taiwan and South Korea have used aggressive testing and coordinated national test-trace-and-isolate programs (along with other measures such as widespread face mask use) to keep the number of new Covid-19 coronavirus infections under control. If you’ll recall, sports like baseball resumed in these countries long before they did in the U.S. And check out pictures of the baseball games, like this one:
Contrast all of this with what has transpired in the U.S. in 2020. The U.S. had plenty of lead time to mount an organized response before things got hairy, or spiky. Prior to 2020, people had already been warning the Trump administration about the possibility of a pandemic,as I wrote forForbesback in 2017. Then, in late January, the WHOdeclared the growing Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak in China a global health emergency, well before the virus had really established itself in the U.S. Throughout the month of February, which is over three Scaramuccis in length, things got progressively worse in parts of Europe until the WHO did what everyone at the time knew was coming,officially declaring the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11.
Did the Trump administration use this lead time to get organized enough to respond appropriately and avoid lengthy shutdowns of the economy? It didn’t seem that way. No coordinated national testing, contact tracing, and surveillance programs were really in place. Many health care professionals didn’t have adequate levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks, which meant that officials had to actually discourage the public from wearing N95 face masks to save such masks for front line workers. Hospitals and health care systems were about as prepared for the pandemic as bathrooms without any toilet paper would be prepared for a chili and prune festival. Speaking of toilet paper. Toilet paper became seemingly as valuable as BTS tickets and in shorter supply. Every week it seemed like another thing was in short supply, ranging from the big TP to disinfectant to flour. The U.S. essentially was caught with its proverbial pants down. In this case, not just its pants, but its underwear, its Hannah Montana socks, and everything else on its body too.
At the time, many political leaders in the U.S. were behaving like the main characters in the movieSuperbad,except that no one was calling any of them McLovin. They had no real clear plan on how to respond to the pandemic. Like virgins trying to get lucky at a party, actions were chaotic and disorganized. Butting the Emma Stone character in the face is not the way to secure a date with her. Similarly, telling everyone that the Covid-19 coronavirus was not that bad and was going to go away on its own was not the way to deal with the pandemic in the Spring.
As cases and deaths began mounting, it felt as if the U.S. were in the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or the NBA Championships and getting hammered. At the time, shutting down businesses and schools seemed to be the only ways of slowing the spread of the virus so that everyone could catch a breather. There was never any intention to keep nearly everything closed forever. That would have been like taking a time out during the NBA Championships and then just sneaking off to the bathroom stall to take a nap of indefinite length. Or simply holding down the cover of a toilet that was overflowing.
Sports teams typically use time outs to regroup, maybe take a potty break, discuss what hasn’t been working, and then come up with a clear game plan to reverse the course of the bleep-storm of a game. Teams shouldn’t use the timeout to say, “oh, our opponents will probably quit soon or go away,” or “this timeout was a bad idea. Let’s stop this time out. We should never ever take a time out again.” Doing so would essentially squander what the time out offered.
Unfortunately, squandering opportunity is what many U.S. leaders seemed to do while schools and many businesses were closed in the Spring. The federal government did not emerge from the “time out” with a clear, coordinated, organized national response that included a nationwide testing, surveillance, and contact tracing program that could have helped better continuously track the virus and guide more focused efforts to box in and contain the virus. If the U.S. had managed to bring the daily case count further down and established a clearer picture of where the virus is spreading, they could then better time and select which school and businesses need to be closed when and only when such closures are really needed. Instead, many of the initial problems with the response such as disorganization and lack of proper public health systems, adequate healthcare capacity, and enough PPE remained.
Many political and business leaders seemed so anxious to get out of the time out that they didn’t really use the time to come up with a coherent plan. In turn, they may have overlooked the fact that the time out was never the intended final solution or the original problem. As a result, at no point, did the U.S. get ahead or take control of the pandemic. At no point did the daily number of new Covid-19 cases drop to a manageable level.
You know those teams that have to keep taking time-outs because they can’t seem to stop the opponent from scoring and catch up? That’s the current concern with countries like the U.S. that still do not have a real coordinated national response to the pandemic. Indeed, lockdowns should never be the primary response to a pandemic. That would be like going into a championship game and saying that the main strategy is to take a lot of time outs during the game. You are not going to time out your opponents into submission. Opponents don’t say, “watch out for that team, they take time outs really well.”
So before you believe that the WHO has somehow reversed its position, take a time out and look more carefully at the who, what, when, and where something may have been said. Nabarro didn’t really seem to say much of anything new. Instead, he simply said what many scientists and pubic health experts have been saying all along.