Millions of people in Europe and around the world are struggling with the consequences of COVID-19. More than four million lost their lives, many companies went bankrupt and of course it has had a great impact on mental health, which was also the subject of the summit organized in Athens by the World Health Organization and the Greek Ministry of Health.
To discuss this and about the pandemic in general, Euronews spoke with WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge.
We begin with the recent development in the investigations of the international delegation in China on the origins of the virus. On the one hand, we have the director of the organization saying recently that perhaps it was a bit premature to rule out a leak, a laboratory leak. And from the other side, China rejected the WHO’s proposed plan for a second phase of an investigation.
Do you have any evidence to suspect that there was a laboratory leak? And what are you going to do from now on?
“I think that’s a question for Dr. Tedros from the WHO in Geneva, because I am the WHO regional director for Europe, which covers all 53 European member states, and China is not one of them. So I was not. aware of the mission. So the information I have is the same that we are hearing from our CEO, which is that all options are on the table and must be investigated. But we must remember that at the time of origin investigations of the MERS or SARS 1 virus, it took between one and two and a half years to establish any link between the virus and the intermediate host. Therefore, it is normal that such an investigation takes a little time. “
As a WHO official, do you think it will be a challenge?
“Well, I think that’s a question, honestly, for Dr. Tedros in Geneva, because I am responsible for the 53 European member states of the WHO. China is not one of them. So I think it would not be fair to me honestly. give a comment on that, as I am not dealing with China. But I see that Dr. Tedros has called on the experts to establish a group of experts to carry out the second phase of the investigations. And I think we should give that research a little time to move on. “
Vaccines in Europe are the way out of this pandemic. Are the numbers satisfactory?
“The way out of the pandemic, I would say, is threefold. I call it the VIP approach. The ‘V’ of the variants. We have to study the variants very closely, in this case, the Delta variant, which attacks people who are not vaccinated or sufficiently vaccinated. The “I” of immunization, we have to expand it. So the answer is no, it is still not enough. We have a coverage of 26% in the European region and then the “P” of people We need to engage more with people, encourage them to get vaccinated, but also adhere to public health measures, including wearing masks when we cannot take a distance of one and a half meters. “
What is your position on mandatory vaccinations? This is a very hot debate right now in Europe.
“It is a very hot debate. So the WHO encourages any measure to increase vaccination coverage as long as it is legally and socially acceptable. But it should not be a first resort because we first have to try to understand what is on the mind of people, what are their perceptions, and then interact with the communities that are hesitant to get vaccinated. And we have a lot of experience with the behavioral information service to convince people, using influential people, see who doubts and think who can influence those people in a form of dialogue. “
Are countries like Africa and Asia being left behind because they can’t afford a vaccine?
“Absolutely. We see a huge inequality there. Even in the pan-European region, there are ten countries with less than 10% coverage. And you are right, if you look at some African countries, solidarity is the only way out. No one is safe until everyone is safe because the aggressive Delta variant is crossing borders. But I see much more solidarity, even from Greece, which is donating vaccines to other countries. ”
How concerned are you about the new variants? Do you think there may be new ones and more contagious or more dangerous?
“There will surely be new ones. There have been hundreds and hundreds of variants and we have been monitoring this from the beginning. But often they are not that harmful. We have to monitor this Delta and Delta plus variant very closely. But what is the solution? “The more transmission, the more variants. In other words, we have to expand vaccination.”
You presented the findings of the survey on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health in Europe, what are the key points of these findings.
“The key point is that mental health was a challenge before the pandemic. It is the leading cause of disability. One in six people, say, (during) three periods of COVID had a mental health disorder. The big finding now from The survey is that we are all vulnerable. Everyone, even if they are strong at one point, can develop a mental health disorder, in particular anxiety, depression. And that is what the Athens summit is doing. I am very grateful to Greece , to the prime minister, to the health minister Kikilias to bring mental health out of the dark. It has to be the cornerstone of our society, our way of life. Mental health is everyone’s business. “
Can you explain the results of the survey a bit?
“We have to focus first of all on what we call High Risk groups, for example, children, adolescents, because they suffered a lot with the closure of the school. Schools are not only an arena for education, but they also provide some social protection, for example against domestic violence, which is not a huge concern. But the survey also showed that we have to pay much more attention to our health and welfare workers. And I would really like to express my gratitude to all the Greek and European health workers who have been and continue to be the heroes of this pandemic. “
You have said that our goal should be to forge a new path for the promotion and care of mental health. Do you think this is possible amid the restrictions due to the pandemic?
Absolutely. We have no choice. Extraordinary times require extraordinary solutions. And at the WHO board of directors in Europe in September, we hope that a European action plan will be approved. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism