(CN) — The World Health Organization on Friday urged pandemic-fatigued nations to not give up trying to contain the novel coronavirus and warned about the long-term health effects of infection, a condition known as “long Covid.”
This message from the United Nations’ health agency comes amid a sharp increase in new infections in Europe and the relentless spread of the virus in the Americas, India and other hard-hit nations. On Thursday, more than 500,000 new infections were reported around the world for the first time.
The coronavirus pandemic is entering into what may become its worst phase yet but with economies collapsing and fatigue setting in over lockdowns and restrictions, there’s the risk governments and populations may give up trying to suppress the virus.
Last Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows sparked concern by declaring, “We are not going to control the pandemic.” On Thursday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called it “crazy” for nations facing a surge in cases to go back into lockdowns. In Europe, protests are growing over restrictions and governments are wary of enforcing tough national lockdowns.
At a news briefing on Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, urged governments and societies overwhelmed by the virus to keep trying to contain it.
He introduced three people – two in the United Kingdom and one in South Africa – who are suffering the effects of infection months later as proof that the virus is much more dangerous than many people care to believe. It’s a condition known as “long Covid” and concern over it is growing.
“It’s imperative that governments recognize the long-term effects of Covid-19 and also ensure access to health services to all of these patients,” Tedros said.
He said Covid-19, the disease caused by the new lethal coronavirus, is causing a “vast spectrum of symptoms that fluctuate over time.” He said the disease has been shown to affect “any system in the body” and can cause long-lasting fatigue, shortness of breath, inflammation, injury to major organs such as the heart and lungs and even affect a person’s brain.
“It also reinforces to me just how morally unconscionable and unfeasible the so-called natural herd immunity strategy is,” Tedros said, referring to the much-debated idea of letting the virus infect a majority of people in order for a population to build up immunity to it.
The United Kingdom, Brazil, the United States, Sweden, Russia, India and other nations have either stated an interest in herd immunity or in practice partly followed such a strategy. These nations also are among the worst hit.
The U.S., Brazil, Russia and India account for about 24.1 million confirmed Covid-19 cases, or more than half of the world’s cases. They also have recorded about 542,000 deaths, nearly half of the 1.18 million fatalities linked to the disease. All four countries continue to report some of the highest numbers of new infections and deaths in the world. They are each led by right-wing, authoritarian and nationalist leaders who have been reluctant to impose measures to stop the spread of the virus.
Tedros rejected the herd immunity strategy.
“Not only would it lead to millions more unnecessary deaths, it would also lead to a significant number of people facing a long road to full recovery,” he said. “Herd immunity is only possible with safe and effective vaccines that are distributed equitably around the world.”
Paul Garner, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, was one of the three people suffering from long Covid who appeared at the news briefing.
He said he contracted the virus in March and initially thought he’d “be able to brush it off my shoulder.”
But he suffered four months of “cyclical bouts of dreadful fatigue, sweats, headaches, mood swings” and then three months of exhaustion.
“It was completely unpredictable,” he said, adding that he has only begun to feel well in the past couple of weeks. “I would never have thought I would have seven months of my life wiped out by this virus.”
Lyth Hishmeh, a 26-year-old software engineer in London, presented an even worse case of long Covid. He’s part of a group called Long Covid SOS.
Hishmeh said he fell ill with Covid in mid-March and initially had flu-like symptoms. Later, after he felt he’d recovered, he left self-isolation to go get groceries and fell gravely ill with his heart racing and his breathing shortened. He got a police officer to hail down an ambulance.
“Being 26 and fit and well, I’d never gone through anything like that,” he said during the online news briefing. “It’s been almost eight months and I’m still suffering from fatigue, brain fog, chest pain, heart palpitations, digestive issues, short-term memory loss.”
He said his “brain fog” is so bad that he has not been able to return to work. “I just want my mental abilities back, that’s all,” he said.
The third long Covid victim, South African nurse Martha Sibanda in Johannesburg, said she became infected with Covid in late June and spent 26 days in the hospital receiving oxygen.
“Four months and I still struggle with shortness of breath,” she said, adding that she has not been able to return to work.
Tedros said it remains unclear how many people suffer from lingering after-effects but that long Covid cases have affected both young and old women and men and children. He said people receiving hospital treatment and those who haven’t have been found struggling to recover.
Tedros said that until vaccines are available “governments and people must do all they can to suppress transmission, which is the best way to prevent these post-Covid long-term consequences.”
The WHO points to how many nations, such as those in Asia, have quelled the virus by breaking chains of transmission through a panoply of measures including rigorous testing, strict quarantines, contact tracing, regular hand-washing, physical distancing and mask wearing.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, said many nations need to do more to tackle the pandemic by “doubling down” on public health investment “to put this virus to the sword” instead of facing the “prospect of putting our society and economies to the sword.”
“I’ve also seen a huge gap between rhetoric and reality, a huge gap between promises and practice and at times a lack of follow through, a sense of magical thinking,” he said. “’We’ve done enough now. This is going away. Enough already. We need to go back to our normal lives.’”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.