General News

Africa: Who Director-General’s Opening Remarks At the Media Briefing On Covid-19 – 27 August 2020

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Tuesday was a great day in global health – the certification of the eradication of wild poliovirus in Africa.

This remarkable effort was started by Rotary International in the 1980s, and advanced by Nelson Mandela in 1996, with the launch of a campaign to “Kick Polio Out of Africa”. At the time, polio paralyzed 75,000 children every year.

Although sadly he is not here to see it, we have realized Madiba’s dream.

This extraordinary achievement has only been possible because of the determination of the people and governments of Africa, and the strong partnership between WHO, Rotary, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, Gavi and the US CDC.

I would also like to acknowledge the many donors who have invested in making this possible, including Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and others.

But the investments we have all made have not only helped to end polio. They have also helped to strengthen health systems, providing vital infrastructure and health workers to respond to other crises including Ebola and COVID-19.

The end of wild poliovirus in Africa is a momentous achievement that demonstrates what’s possible when we come together in a spirit of solidarity.

But it is not the end of polio globally.

We still have a lot of work to do to eradicate polio from the last two countries where it exists: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Polio is not the only disease against which we are making progress.

Yesterday we also celebrated the end of sleeping sickness in Togo as a public health problem.

I would like to use this opportunity to congratulate the people and government of Togo and their partners on this achievement.

Sleeping sickness, or human African Trypanosomiasis, is a neglected tropical disease spread by tsetse flies, and is endemic in 36 African countries. Without treatment, it’s fatal.

Seven other countries are preparing to submit their dossiers to show they too have eliminated sleeping sickness as a public health problem: Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea.

A further three countries have announced their intention to do so: Burkina Faso, Kenya and Chad.

This is incredible progress against a disease which was considered impossible to eliminate just 20 years ago.


Globally, we need the same spirit of solidarity and partnership that are helping to end polio and sleeping sickness to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

As societies open up, many are starting to see a resurgence of transmission.

Much of this resurgence is occurring in clusters of cases related to gatherings of people, including at stadiums, nightclubs, places of worship and crowds.

These types of gatherings can be amplifying events that can be the spark that creates a much larger fire.

Every country and community must make its own decisions about how to host these events safely, based on their own level of risk.

In some circumstances, closures or suspending events may be necessary for a short time. In others, there are creative ways events can be held safely to minimize risk.

The Hajj pilgrimage, for example, went ahead with limited numbers of people who were physically distanced.

Some sporting events are experimenting with reintroducing limited numbers of spectators.

In the weeks and months ahead, events, festivals and celebrations of all kinds will take place.

There are ways these events can be held safely, with a risk-based approach that takes the measures necessary to keep people safe.

These measures should be communicated clearly and regularly.

We humans are social beings. It’s natural and normal that we want to come together for all sorts of reasons.

There are many ways we can be physically apart, but remain socially connected.


For many people, the lack of social interaction caused by the pandemic has had a profound affect on their mental health.

COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of millions of people, in terms of the anxiety and fear it has caused, and disruption to mental health services.

People in long-term facilities such as care homes and psychiatric institutions are at increased risk of infection.

Mental health professionals have themselves been infected with the virus; and some mental health facilities have been closed to convert them into treatment facilities for people with COVID-19.

Mental health was already a neglected health issue globally.

Close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder, 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide.

Yet relatively few people have access to quality mental health services.

In low- and middle-income countries, more than 75% of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders receive no treatment for their condition at all.

Stigma, discrimination, punitive legislation and human rights abuses are still widespread.

For this year’s World Mental Health Day, WHO, together with our partner organizations, United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health, is calling for a massive scale-up in investments in mental health.

On World Mental Health Day, the 10th of October, WHO will for the first time host a global online advocacy event on mental health.

During this event-the Big Event for Mental Health-I will be joined by experts and household names from the worlds of music and sport to talk about what we can all do to improve our mental health – and you will hear their stories. Each and every individual has a story to tell about mental health.

I will also be joined by world leaders who will explain why they are investing in improving the mental health of the people they serve.

We will also show the incredible work being done, and what more needs to be done, to make sure that quality mental health care is available to everyone who needs it.


Last month I announced the establishment of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, to evaluate the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.