Photo taken on Jan. 22, 2020 shows an exterior view of the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. The WHO on Wednesday night extended to Thursday its emergency talks on whether the novel coronavirus outbreak in China constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). (Xinhua/Liu Qu)

The health systems of wealthy countries performed more poorly than expected during the early phase of the Covid-19 crisis, WHO emergency operations chief Mike Ryan said on Thursday in Geneva.

It was surprising to see how slowly countries adopted the necessary health strategies, Ryan told a press briefing, summing up lessons learned in the six months since the WHO declared a global health emergency over the novel coronavirus outbreak at the end of January.

“We are learning lessons that there has been a deep underinvestment in public health architecture,” Ryan added.
As the number of cases worldwide approaches 17 million, the list of the 20 countries with the most infections is led by the United States and includes Britain, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.

The WHO traditionally provides operational help on the ground in developing and middle-income countries.

“If I could go back and change anything I think I would [offer direct assistance] to countries where I think we made some assumptions on capacities that existed, and skills and workforces that maybe should have existed or should have been expanded,” Ryan said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s chief Covid-19 scientist, pointed out that her agency had already drawn up international guidance on how to find infections, protect health workers and prepare for outbreaks in the second week of January.

Even though some countries were slow at the beginning, the examples of South Korea, Italy, Spain and Germany showed that it was possible to turn the tide and suppress the virus, she said.

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