Tag Archives: public health

COVID-19: What You Should Know About Masks

About the author

Tabitha Kwon is a student at Yonsei University, Seoul, Republic of Korea. From January through April 2020, she served as a United Nations intern working in the UN Chronicle Unit, Outreach Division, Department of Global Communications.

A few months ago, some of my fellow United Nations interns and I enjoyed a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City. The very next day, a woman wearing a yellow face mask—the kind now commonly worn to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus—was allegedly called “diseased” and physically attacked by a man at the Grand Street Subway station,1 not far from where we had dined. The virus doesn’t discriminate, but antagonism against people thought to have the virus seemed to be escalating. Strikingly, I found that many hate crimes occurring worldwide were being committed against people wearing masks.

My home country, the Republic of Korea, was one of the first epicentres of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by Italy, Spain and the United States. When the case counts exponentially soared there in late February 2020, my parents cried on the phone that they were relieved that I was in the United States. Masks, which were once very easy to find in Korea, were being worn compulsively by anyone needing to leave their homes, and in just a few weeks had thus become difficult to purchase. On a designated day each week, my parents had to stand in queue for hours to buy a mask, often only to find out that they were too late. On such occasions, they would inevitably have to wear the disposable masks they’d already worn for days, afraid that they would be stared at if they didn’t.

While the curve started to flatten in the Republic of Korea, the number of confirmed cases began to skyrocket in New York. My parents called again, this time urging me to put on a mask whenever I had to leave the house. But unlike back home, where disposable masks are normally sold in every pharmacy, I could not find a single mask in any of the well-known pharmacies in New York. Not only were masks uncommon in the United States, but many Asians wearing them were being wrongly identified as virus infectors. I was too afraid to stroll around the streets with a mask on and refused to do so. While the press in the United States announced that masks should only be worn by those who had symptoms, the public in my home country were baffled by the fact that many Westerners were busily heading to grocery stores without wearing masks at all.

Culture matters

In late January, the citizens of the cities of Asan, Jincheon and Icheon in the Republic of Korea finally decided to welcome its residents coming home from Wuhan, China, where the pandemic is thought to have begun, instead of opposing their entry. “If it is guaranteed that necessary preventive measures would be made, I’ll delightfully wish the best for their health. They weren’t in Wuhan [on] purpose”, citizens said.2 The Government continued to embrace Chinese entrants, explaining that border shutdowns not only have no practical benefits, but also among all confirmed patients in the country, very few were Chinese.3 Without the kind of strict cross-border restrictions and lockdowns that were imposed in other countries, the Republic of Korea was able to lower its infection rate by mid-March. This was made possible not only by the country’s well-founded health-care system, but also through extensive tracking and transparency. The movements of a confirmed patient could be retraced immediately so that the Government could test or quarantine all other contacted persons. Based on the data collected from surveillance camera footage and credit card usage, a COVID-19 patient’s movements could be recreated and delivered to people nearby via text message. Apps providing visual maps derived from the released information were also easily accessible.4

Although cross-border restrictions may exist, they should not divide our unity to fight this virus together.

The willingness and consent of the people of the Republic of Korea to sacrifice privacy rights in the interest of public safety and the resulting epidemiological survey conducted during the national emergency demonstrate the collectivist mindset inherent in the culture. The English word “conflict” comes from the Latin word confligere, which means “strike together” or “fight”. Conflicts are often compared to fire and referred to as something to be extinguished. The word “conflict” in Korean refers to a situation in which two different types of climbing plants that tend to twine in opposite directions are entangled.5 To solve such “conflicts”, it is important to “disentangle the skein of thread”. Thus, in the Republic of Korea, someone who has been confirmed to have COVID-19 is not seen as someone to cut off, but rather to disentangle as part of the whole. Exhaustive monitoring and publication of information, and not missing or excluding one single person, as in acupuncture, in which needles are inserted into the whole body for blood circulation, were crucial in the Korean perspective. In the same vein, each individual’s responsibility to wear masks to partake in protecting the whole society, including the vulnerable, was an obvious virtue in my country.

In the more individualistic Western countries, which are more familiar with surgery than acupuncture, containment strategies that include lockdowns are being extensively utilized. Along the same lines, in the United States, masks have traditionally been seen as a means to sort out the sick, or in some cases, even indicated that the wearer was a menacing person. As evident in the fact that many States and the European Union have a history of considering or actually enacting anti-mask laws for decades, the anxiety about face covering is prevalent in Western society. With this in mind, it is understandable that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a month to rethink and eventually reverse its guidance on wearing masks to deal with the pandemic.

A bottle of hand sanitizer provided for public use, attached to a COVID-19 health advisory sign in the Republic of Korea. Photo provided by Tabitha Kwon.

Time for solidarity

Neither culture is superior; rather, they are complementary. Every culture has a vital role in defeating COVID-19 today. The term “social distancing” is being widely used these days; the practice is seen as key to slowing the spread of the virus and saving the vulnerable. As odd as this phrase seems, composed of two words of opposite meanings, it embraces both collectivism and individualism. It emphasizes that keeping physical distance for the sake of others is necessary amid the global pandemic.

All cultures are worthy of respect, and many cultures worldwide are changing and creating new phenomena, as we see in the decision by Germany to require mask usage outdoors. A day after Philadelphia’s transit authority announced a policy barring passengers without face coverings from using its services, however, a video of a man without a mask being forcibly dragged off of a city bus surfaced online. The video provoked outrage from many, while others argued that the police action was a necessary measure considering the global crisis. The transit authority later amended its policy, stating that face coverings were no longer mandatory, but recommended.6

People are bound to be confused in the midst of shifting cultural norms. Indeed, it stands to reason that people may feel anxious in such a state of uncertainty and change. However, with a better understanding of other cultures, perceptions and situations, humanity can overcome hatred and abandon the need to scapegoat. It is time for solidarity and global cooperation for world peace and well-being. Although cross-border restrictions may exist, they should not divide our unity to fight this virus together. For the sake of the most vulnerable, including the elderly among us, refugees in camps and the homeless in the streets, the international community should come together and demonstrate global citizenship to fight this virus in these unprecedented times.

Notes

1 David K. Li, “Coronavirus hate attack: Woman in face mask allegedly assaulted by man who calls her ‘diseased’”, NBC News, 5 February 2020. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hate-attack-woman-face-mask-allegedly-assaulted-man-who-n1130671.

2 Jong-gu Han, “’Please Make Yourself at Home,’ Asan Citizens’ Campaign on Social Media to Welcome Evacuees from Wuhan,” Yonhap News, 31 January, 2020. Available at https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20200131072100063.

3 Sungmin Yoon, “‘This is not to please China:’ President Moon’s 5 reasons for not imposing travel ban on China,” Joongang Ilbo, 27 February 2020. Available at https://news.joins.com/article/23717377

4 Max Fisher and Sang-Hun Choe, “How South Korea Flattened the Curve,” New York Times, 23 March 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/world/asia/coronavirus-south-korea-flatten-curve.html.

5 Soo-Young Kwon, “[Reasons and Reflections] Why We Should Not Cut off Relationships, but Solve Conflicts,” The Kyunghyang Shinmun, 10 January 2020. Available at http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?art_id=202001102101035

6 Cailtin O’Kane, “Philadelphia transit officials change policy on masks after video shows man being dragged off bus,” CBS News, 13 April 2020. Available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-philadelphia-bus-septa-face-mask-policy-video-shows-man-being-dragged-by-police/.

25 June 2020

Feature photo credit: A street scene from the Republic of Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo provided by Tabitha Kwon.

The  UN Chronicle  is not an official record. The views expressed by individual authors, as well as the boundaries and names shown and the designations used in maps or articles, do not necessarily imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations. 

Secretary-General António Guterres video message on International day of UN Peacekeepers, 29 May

29 May 2020

Today we honor more than one million men and women who have served as United Nations peacekeepers and the more than 3,900 who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

We also express our gratitude to the 95,000 civilian, police and military personnel currently deployed around the world.

They are facing one of the greatest challenges ever: delivering on their peace and security mandates while helping countries to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The theme of this year’s observance – Women in Peacekeeping – highlights their central role in our operations.

Women often have greater access in the communities we serve, enabling us to improve the protection of civilians, promote human rights and enhance overall performance.

This is especially important today, as female peacekeepers are on the frontlines in supporting the response to COVID-19 in already fragile contexts – using local radio to spread public health messaging, delivering necessary supplies to communities for prevention, and supporting efforts of local peacebuilders. Yet, women continue to represent only 6 per cent of uniformed military, police, justice and corrections personnel in field missions.

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, we must do more to achieve women’s equal representation in all areas of peace and security.

Together, let us continue to wage peace, defeat the pandemic and build a better future.

 

Together we can win the war against COVID-19

— Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC)

BY: 

KINGSLEY IGHOBOR

 Virologist Dr. John Nkengasong is the director of the Addis-based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). It was established by the African Union to support member states’ public health initiatives and strengthen public health institutions’ capacity to detect, prevent, control and respond to disease threats and outbreaks quickly and effectively. On Thursday 26 March Dr. Nkengasong talked to Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor about COVID-19 and Africa’s response capability. Here are some excerpts:

Africa Renewal: How prepared is Africa to respond to COVID-19?

Dr. Nkengasong: We were fortunate that COVID-19 didn’t start in Africa. We had time to observe what happened in China in December 2019 and January 2020, and rapidly prepare countries to respond in key areas. One of those is diagnostics. By the second week of February, just Senegal and South Africa could diagnose COVID-19. So, in Senegal, we quickly brought together representatives of laboratories from 16 African countries, trained them and gave them diagnostic equipment. After that we conducted competency-based training in South Africa, where we also provided diagnostic equipment. Then we came back again to Senegal and trained another group. So far, we have trained representatives of laboratories from 48 countries. The cases being detected now are because of that massive effort.

What are the other areas?

The second area we focused on was infection prevention and control. We recognized that COVID-19 could overwhelm our healthcare facilities and that nurses and doctors could be affected. We cannot afford to have 3,000 doctors or healthcare workers infected, as was the case in China. So, we immediately brought representatives of 35 countries together in Nigeria and trained them on infection prevention and control. In Kenya we brought together representatives of more than 30 countries for training in enhanced airport, airline and port-of-entry screening.

Then we went to Tunisia and trained countries on communicating risk to the general public.

How is the African Union providing support?

We are using all expertise — from member states, Africa CDC and WHO — to respond to COVID-19.

At the political level, Africa CDC and the African Union Commission, under the leadership of chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat convened a meeting of all health ministers on 22 February where we agreed on the need to have a coordinated continental strategy that hinges on cooperation, collaboration, coordination and communication.

The second outcome of that meeting was the establishment of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus Preparedness and Response. The infection prevention and control part of that task force is co-led by Nigeria and Africa CDC. The laboratory part of it is co-led by Senegal, Africa CDC and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What are the key challenges so far?

There are serious challenges in supplies. In New York, you hear the governor talk about shortages of respirators and other supplies. In Africa, we don’t manufacture these items; we import them. But now that the world is consuming a lot of what is produced, it is becoming difficult for us to obtain such items that will allow us to better prepare and respond.

What do you plan to do about this?

We have been working very hard with the office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, and the Jack Ma Foundation, who jointly launched an initiative to support African countries with a huge shipment of diagnostic equipment. I’ll call it the “marathon mission” because we have seven [Africa CDC] personnel at the airport coordinating with Ethiopian Airlines, WHO and the Ethiopian government to distribute throughout Africa about one million testing kits, six million masks, and 60,000 protective suits.

The current stock will buy us time for about two to three weeks. But in the next couple of weeks we need, as Africans, to have our own stock. Africa CDC and the AU will be heading out all over the world to stockpile massively so that we can support member states in the fight against COVID-19.

How is Africa CDC collaborating with WHO?

We are collaborating very well with WHO. I also wear a double hat as Dr. Tedros’s [Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general] special envoy for Africa on COVID-19.

We just finished a call with Dr. Matshidiso Moeti [WHO Regional Director for Africa] and two days ago, she and I discussed coordination and advocacy strategies. WHO has also played an important role in shipping diagnostic [equipment] to countries.

What information do you have regarding vaccine development and accessibility?

We are not close to a vaccine. We will be fortunate to have a vaccine in the next one to one-and-a-half years. I’m a board member of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, which was set up after the 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa to facilitate the development of vaccines. Within that group, I’m also on the Equitable Access subcommittee where we champion access to vaccines for vulnerable populations.

Any lessons from that Ebola outbreak?

One lesson we learned from Ebola was the importance of the deployment of young African responders. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we enlisted 800 in what we called the African Healthcare Volunteer Force, and we will be doing the same to address this pandemic.

As we speak, there are more than 50 responders here [in Addis Ababa] that we have brought from different countries to support our response. And we are putting some in Nigeria and others in Cameroon. We plan to escalate that very quickly.

What is your final message to Africans?

My message to Africa is that we should adhere to the continental strategy endorsed by Africa’s health ministers in February and being championed by the chair of the African Union for 2020, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

If we do not have a continental strategy that enables us to coordinate, collaborate, cooperate effectively and communicate, we are doomed. No one country can eliminate COVID-19 in Africa alone. We must demonstrate a unity of purpose and work collectively to wage and win the war against COVID-19. We don’t have a choice.

For more information on COVID-19, visit www.un.org/coronavirus

Africa Renewal

 

COVID-19: We Will Come Through This Together

by António Guterres

The upheaval caused by the coronavirus – COVID-19 — is all around us.  And I know many are anxious, worried and confused.  That’s absolutely natural.

UNSG Antonio Guterres

We are facing a health threat unlike any other in our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, the virus is spreading, the danger is growing, and our health systems, economies and day-to-day lives are being severely tested.

The most vulnerable are the most affected—particularly our elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, those without access to reliable health care, and those in poverty or living on the edge.

The social and economic fallout from the combination of the pandemic and slowing economies will affect most of us for some months.

But the spread of the virus will peak.  Our economies will recover.

Until then, we must act together to slow the spread of the virus and look after each other.

This is a time for prudence, not panic. Science, not stigma.  Facts, not fear.

Even though the situation has been classified as a pandemic, it is one we can control. We can slow down transmissions, prevent infections and save lives.  But that will take unprecedented personal, national and international action.

COVID-19 is our common enemy.  We must declare war on this virus.  That means countries have a responsibility to gear up, step up and scale up.

How?  By implementing effective containment strategies; by activating and enhancing emergency response systems; by dramatically increasing testing capacity and care for patients; by readying hospitals, ensuring they have the space, supplies and needed personnel; and by developing life-saving medical interventions.

All of us have a responsibility, too — to follow medical advice and take simple, practical steps recommended by health authorities.

In addition to being a public health crisis, the virus is infecting the global economy.

Financial markets have been hard hit by the uncertainty.  Global supply chains have been disrupted.  Investment and consumer demand have plunged — with a real and rising risk of a global recession.

United Nations economists estimate that the virus could cost the global economy at least $1 trillion this year – and perhaps far more.

No country can do it alone. More than ever, governments must cooperate to revitalize economies, expand public investment, boost trade, and ensure targeted support for the people and communities most affected by the disease or more vulnerable to the negative economic impacts – including women who often shoulder a disproportionate burden of care work.

A pandemic drives home the essential interconnectedness of our human family.  Preventing the further spread of COVID-19 is a shared responsibility for us all.

The United Nations – including the World Health Organization — is fully mobilized.

As part of our human family, we are working 24/7 with governments, providing international guidance, helping the world take on this threat.

We are in this together – and we will get through this, together.

António Guterres is Secretary-General of the United Nations.