WHO voices concern over stigma, profiling of people affected by COVID-19

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 World Health Organization (WHO) has urged all to show solidarity in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, and avoid any stigma or profiling of those affected by the disease.

Answering questions on Monday at a daily briefing on whether cruise ships should be “steered clear” following the case of the Diamond Princess ship, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said that “it’s impossible to reduce the risk of anything to zero.”

He said that outside China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, “this epidemic is affecting a very tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of people.” Ryan urged the public to be “extremely measured” at the WHO’s actions, saying that “everything we do needs to be based on public health and evidence.”The Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew, has been kept in a two-week quarantine period off the Yokohama Port near Tokyo, after an 80-year-old passenger on board from Hong Kong was found infected with COVID-19.

So far, the total number of confirmed infections on the cruise ship has risen to 454. “People say we should steer clear of airports, steer clear of ethnic groups and steer clear of other things, but we have to be really careful here,” said Ryan. “We need an approach to manage risk, which allows us to continue to operate as a society while minimizing the risk we know about,” he added.

The WHO expert believed that though some specific risks were associated with a small number of cruise ships, the risk has since waned. “We need to be realistic about what has happened … separate the past from where we are now, what’s the evidence now and where do we go from here,” he said.”There are a lot of people around the world who have suffered from stigma and profiling. Maybe we should be concerned about that, and ensure that people around the world show solidarity with those affected and don’t extend risk beyond what’s reasonable,” said Ryan. “We need to avoid stigma at all cost.”

Also at the briefing, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that measures taken against COVID-19 should be proportional to the situation based on public health, science and evidence. “Blanket measures may not help,” he said.

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