“We started to work and prepare the country for all potential hazards from bio-terrorism to war and cybersecurity, but the main issue we focused on was biological and emerging diseases.”
By MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN JUNE 1, 2020
The World Health Organization has been at the forefront of the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Since the onset of the pandemic, WHO has provided the world with daily updates of the number of active cases and other communications. It has brought countries together to fight COVID-19, establishing joint programs to develop treatments and vaccines and develop supplies.
Israeli-born Dorit Nitzan, who is a visiting scholar in the School of Public Health at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, serves as director of emergencies for the World Health Organization. In her role, she oversees 53 member states, including members of the European Union, the former Soviet republics, the Balkans, Turkey and Israel.
Nitzan told The Jerusalem Post that WHO was criticized for how it handled the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and therefore underwent a “mega transformation,” establishing her team in May 2016.
“We started to work and prepare the country for all potential hazards from bio-terrorism to war and cybersecurity,” Nitzan said. “But the main issue we focused on was biological and emerging diseases – and here it came.
“We were much more prepared and ready as a team this time around,” she said.
Nitzan spoke with the Post (answers modified for clarity and conciseness):
During the pandemic, one of your specialties seemed to be offering tools, techniques and interventions to address mental health challenges. What has been the main message?
Mental health is a mega issue here because it touches so many lives. One of the first things we did was stop calling it "social distancing" and changed it to ‘physical distancing,’ to make sure people were still in touch with one another.
For children – all of their lives have been shifted, some were faced with violence at home, coupled with lack of social contact or a shift in social contact from friends to adults. Strong and resilient communities took good care of this… Many of our communities needed to invest a lot.
What about stigmatization, is that something real with COVID-19?
We heard that in different communities, healthcare workers… were stigmatized because people believed they were spreading the disease.
The other thing we saw in some countries was that people would say that others got the virus because they probably did not wash their hands or were hugging too much. That’s not true. You can be a victim [of coronavirus] just like anything else.
So, there was a lot of infodemic?
There was a lot of infodemic in COVID-19. This pandemic was unique because it comes at a time when the world is connected through social media and everything.
But what worries me a lot, is that people don’t trust the government or health professionals.
On Monday, you will be speaking at a conference run by the Israeli American Council and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Your panel is entitled, “Medical Breakthrough: The Amazing Race.” What are the lessons you plan to share?
One main issue is the fact that this pandemic is unique. Let’s say it was a polio pandemic or something else. We would have known the virus – how to treat it. Here we are talking about a new virus and therefore it required the whole world to understand, first of all, that we are all exposed, we are fighting a common enemy and borders really don’t count.
What we all really needed to do was to learn about the virus and develop a new doctrine. And we had to be flexible and humble – very humble – while doing it.
Another issue is the whole idea of governance from one side and people’s trust on the other. We saw in many countries where people trusted their leadership, they followed the instructions. Those countries did not need laws and regulations. They would get advice from their prime minister or health minister and stay home and behave.
In some countries, where they did not trust and there was not solidarity, people were fighting and looking for ways not to comply.
We learned that each country needs to have a command and control system that can be activated in this kind of war… and to ensure information is shared and that community engagement is at the forefront. The more very clear, concrete information that can be shared without confusion, the better people will do.
Finally, the other thing is solidarity – global solidarity.
We understood very quickly that we don’t have enough personal protective equipment or test kits. We had to work together. We launched a solidarity trial for medicine, for developing a vaccine, for supplies. All of this solidarity is so important for tackling a global disease.
How did Israel do?
Israel was among the first countries to really take strong measures… Israel has universal health coverage, which we found is key. Every person in the country has to have access to quality and continuous health services, from public health to primary care, to emergency care, to hospital care and rehabilitation. Israel has those values; it is part of the country.
Is there anything Israel has to improve?
What I would like Israel to invest in is trust building and community engagement so that all people understand that this pandemic is a severe disease. I don’t think that was clear to everyone.
Also, we recommend at WHO to try to take the measures [to open the economy] one after the other, but two weeks apart to see [the impact]. We ask countries to take off regulations very slowly.