Millions of people in Europe and around the world are struggling with the consequences of COVID-19. More than four million lost their lives, with many businesses bankrupt and, of course, it”s been a heavy toll on mental health, which was also the topic of the summit organised in Athens by the World Health Organisation and the Greek Ministry of Health.
To discuss this and about the pandemic in general, Euronews spoke to the regional director for Europe of WHO, Hans Kluge.
We begin with the recent development in the investigations of the international delegation in China regarding the origins of the virus. From one side, we have the head of the organization recently saying that maybe it was a bit too premature to rule out a leak, a laboratory leak. And from the other side, China rejected the proposed plan from WHO for a second phase of an investigation.
Do you have any indications leading to suspicion 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 at WHO in Geneva, because I’m the WHO regional director for Europe, which encompasses the 53 European member states, and China is not one of them. So I was not privy to the mission. So the information I have is the same as we are hearing from our director-general, which is that all options are on the table and should be investigated. But we should remember that at the time of the investigations for the origin of the MERS or the SARS 1 virus, it took between one and two years and a half to establish some link between the virus and the intermediary host. So it’s normal that such an investigation takes a little bit of time.”
As an official of WHO, do you think it’s going to be challenging?
“Well, I think that’s a question, honestly, for Dr. Tedros in Geneva, because I am responsible for the 53 WHO European member states. China is not one of them. So I think it wouldn’t be fair for me honestly to give a comment on that one as I am not dealing with China. But I see that Dr. Tedros has issued a call for experts to establish an expert group to take the second phase of the investigations forward. And I think we should give that investigation a little bit of time to move on.”
The vaccinations in Europe is the way out of this pandemic. Are the numbers satisfactory?
“The way out of the pandemic, I would say is threefold. I call it VIP approach. The ‘V’ from variants. We have to study very closely the variants, in this case, the Delta variant, which is attacking people who are not or insufficiently vaccinated. The ‘I’ from immunisation, we need to scale up. So the answer is no, it’s not enough yet. We have 26% coverage in the European region and then the ‘P’ from people. We need to further engage with the people, encourage them to take the vaccine, but also adhere still to the public health measures, including wearing of masks when we cannot take distance of one metre and a half.”
Where do you stand about mandatory vaccinations? This is a very hot debate right now in Europe.
“It’s a very hot debate. So WHO encourages any measure to increase coverage of vaccination as long as this is legally and socially acceptable. But it should not be a first resort because first we have to try to understand what’s in the mind of the people, what are their perceptions, and then engage with the communities which are hesitant to get vaccinated. And we do have a lot of experience with behavioural insight service to convince the people, making use of influencers, look who is hesitant and think who can influence those people in a way of dialogue.”
Are countries such as Africa and Asia being left behind because they cannot afford a vaccine?
“Absolutely. We see a huge inequity there. Even in the pan-European region, there are ten countries with less than 10% of coverage. And you’re right, if you look to some African countries, solidarity is the only way out. No one is safe until everyone is safe because the aggressive Delta variant is crossing the borders. But I do see much more solidarity, including from Greece, which is donating vaccines to other countries.”
How concerned are you about new variants? Do you think there might be new and more contagious or more dangerous ones?
“That there will be new for sure. There have been hundreds and hundreds of variants and we have been monitoring this since the very beginning. But often they are not so harmful. This Delta and Delta plus variant we have to monitor very closely. But what is the solution? The more transmission, the more variants. In other words, we have to scale up the vaccination.”
You presented the survey findings of the impact of COVID-19 in mental health around 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 biggest cause of disability. One out of six people in, let’s say, (during) three COVID times had a mental health disorder. The big finding now from the survey is that every one of us is vulnerable. Everyone, even if he is strong one moment, can develop a mental health disorder, particularly anxiety, depression. And that is what the Athens summit is doing. I’m very grateful to Greece, to the prime minister, the minister of Health Kikilias to lift mental health from the darkness. It has to be the cornerstone of our society, our way of living. Mental health is everybody’s business.”
Can you elaborate a little bit about the findings of the survey?
“We have to focus first and foremost on what we call High-Risk groups, for example, the children, the adolescents, because they suffered a lot with the school closure. The schools are not only a setting for education, but it also provides some social protection, for example, against domestic violence, which is not a very big concern. But also the survey showed we have to pay much more attention to our health and social care workers. And I really would like to express my appreciation to all the Greek and European health workers who have been and are still the heroes of this pandemic.”
You have said that forging a new path for mental health promotion and care should be our goal. Do you think that this is possible amid restrictions because of the pandemic?
Absolutely. We have no choice. Extraordinary times require extraordinary solutions. And at the WHO Europe’s governing bodyboard in September, we hope to get a European action plan approved.”