Lifting COVID-19 Lockdowns Must Be Done Gradually, WHO Says

Basilio Sepe and Luis Liwanag
200421-PH-COVID1000.JPG Members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force are deployed in Manila to help enforce quarantine checks, April 21, 2020.
Luis Liwanag/BenarNews

Updated at 12:22 a.m. ET on 2020-04-22

Countries across the region should prepare to keep lockdowns in place for the foreseeable future to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization’s regional chief said Tuesday.

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc worldwide, pushing governments to implement measures to restrict the movement of people, said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, WHO’s Manila-based head for the Western Pacific region.

“This is not the time to relax,” Kasai told an online news briefing. “Instead, we need to ready ourselves to a new way of living for the foreseeable future.”

In Manila, a lockdown imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte is set to expire at the end of this month, and he has been consulting his officials on whether to extend it or lift the order in phases.

On Tuesday, the Philippine health department reported 140 new coronavirus infections, bringing the number of nationwide cases to 6,599. There were also nine new deaths, taking the toll to 437.

Kasai noted that the coronavirus had forced countries to impose unwelcome prohibitions on movements and other measures, which he said had “proven effective in slowing and reducing transmission and easing the burden on overstretched health systems.”

While there has been no widespread community transmissions in the Western Pacific region, compared to the United States and Europe, governments must not relax, Kasai said.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “Every country needs to discuss [this] within their official context.”

Lifting of quarantines or lockdowns could be done on a “stage by stage phasing out,” depending on the health capacities of each country, he said.

“We should be very cautious. We really have to assess the situation and we have to address this as a risk-based approach,” Kasai said, emphasizing that the COVID-19 battle was “going to be a long one.”

As health experts around the globe race to develop a vaccine, countries must do their part and learn to adapt to the “new normal,” while being prepared for large-scale community outbreaks, he said.

Globally, more than 2.5 million infections have been recorded while the death toll stood at more than 171,800 as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

‘No decision yet’

In the Philippines, Duterte had consulted with various officials to discuss the possibility of extending the lockdown, which is now in place over Luzon, the country’s main island that is home to some 60 million people. As of Tuesday, however, no decision has yet been reached, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.

“The president has made no decision yet on what will happened when April 30 comes around,” Roque told a news conference. He said that the options of the president were dependent on whether regions in the country had already flattened the curve.

He said that during the president’s consultations with experts, none of them had recommended a “total lockdown.”

“The question is, can we have our countrymen wait so long. Can the government feed them? We are trying to balance the right to live and the right to have a living,” Roque said.

WHO chief: Some countries considering lifting restrictions

On Monday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “easing restrictions is not the end of the epidemic in any country,” as he emphasized that suppressing the disease would require a sustained effort from individuals, communities and governments.

“So-called lockdowns can help to take the heat out of a country’s epidemic, but they cannot end it alone,” he told reporters in Geneva.

Tedros also said last week that some countries were considering when they could lift restrictions; while others were considering whether and when to introduce them. He did not identify the countries.

“In both cases, these decisions must be based first and foremost on protecting human health, and guided by what we know about the virus and how it behaves.”

WHO had earlier warned that easing of coronavirus lockdowns should be done slowly and only when there was the capacity to isolate cases and trace contacts.

Meanwhile in Thailand on Tuesday, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan o-cha said his government would not rush to lift restrictions on movements that were imposed as safeguards against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The decision to lift bans and restrictions will not be made under any pressure,” Prayuth told reporters. “The most important things are evaluating the situation and advice from health experts. If we rush to ease measures, the pandemic will return.”

Prayuth made his comments after the cabinet approved 98.7 billion baht ($3 billion) in relief measures to help mitigate the coronavirus impact.

Officials earlier said that up to 10 million people could lose their jobs due to the pandemic, but the government has also announced a series of packages worth billions of dollars, including subsidies to farmers and to help businesses bounce back from economic shock.

Thailand reported 19 new infections on Tuesday, taking its coronavirus tally to 2,811, with one fatality added to its previous death toll of 47. Health authorities reported that the daily increase in new confirmed cases had stayed under 20 during the past two weeks.

Prayuth rolled out emergency measures and ordered a partial lockdown in March, when his government recorded a surge in new coronavirus infections. Prayuth said he would consider next Tuesday whether the restrictions on movement would be extended.

“The situation is getting better, the new cases declined for many days,” Prayuth said. “But we need to be careful and not to rest assured prematurely.”

This story has been updated to correct a typo in the first quote by Dr. Takeshi Kasai.

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