COVID-19 battle echoes smallpox; concerns rise over domestic violence in lockdown

Police car at night
Police car at night

Evgen_Prozhyrko / iStock

Marking the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication today, the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general said the same solidarity that powered the final steps to victory over smallpox is needed now to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency also voiced concern over increased reports of domestic violence in nations under stay-at-home orders.

In other developments, the WHO updated it pandemic response plan, which needs $1.3 billion in funding to cover actions through the end of 2020. The global coronavirus case total today approached 4 million, rising to 3,918,316, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard. So far, at least 273,034 people have died from COVID-19.

Smallpox eradication has parallels to COVID-19

At a media briefing today, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the WHO's director-general, said humanity's victory over smallpox is a reminder of what's possible when nations join to fight a common health threat. He said smallpox eradication depended on tried-and-true public health measures that have been important in the fight against Ebola and COVID-19, including surveillance, case findings, contact tracing, and communication campaigns.

However, he noted that the smallpox eradication campaign had a crucial tool that the fight against COVID-19 doesn't yet have: a vaccine, which was first developed in 1796. "But although a vaccine was crucial for ending smallpox, it was not enough on its own," Tedros said.

He said the decisive factor was global solidarity, and at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States joined forces to overcome a common enemy.

"They recognized that viruses do not respect nations or ideologies," he said. "That same solidarity, built on national unity, is needed now more than ever to defeat COVID-19."

Also, Tedros announced the resources the WHO needs to conduct its updated COVID-19 plan through the end of the year. The plan requires $1.7 billion, and with funds the group already has, the gap is $1.3 billion.

He clarified that the estimate only covers the WHO's role, not the entire global price tag. He said WHO is deeply grateful to countries and donors who have responded to requests to fund the initial part of the COVID-19 response plan.

European COVID-19 heads east as domestic violence rises

In an update on COVID-19 in Europe yesterday, the WHO's European office regional director, Hans Kluge, MD, MPH, said the region has 45% of the world's cases and 60% of its deaths, and that over the past month, the virus is moving east. As a whole, cases have declined since the middle of April, but he said the situation in the east is a concern, with four countries reporting increases in new cases over the past week: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine.

So far, 43 countries in Europe have ordered partial or full lockdowns, and 32 are taking steps to ease some measures as they suppress virus activity. "The situation remains very fragile and could quickly relapse if the basic measures are not scaled up, their surge maintained and if the transition is not planned carefully and gradually," Kluge said.

Kluge added that the WHO is deeply troubled by reports from many countries of increases in intrapersonal violence by intimate partners against women and men and against children, compounded pressures associated with the pandemic and lockdowns.

"With job losses, rising alcohol-based harm and drug use, stress and fear, the legacy of this pandemic could haunt us for years," he said. 

Though data are scarce, countries are reporting up to a 60% increase for April, compared to the same month last year, in emergency calls by women who are subjected to violence from their intimate partners, Kluge said. Online queries to hotlines have increased up to five times, he added.

The United Nations Population Fund has warned that if lockdowns continue another 6 months, it expects an extra 31 million cases of gender-based violence across the globe, only a fraction of which is ever reported, Kluge said.

He urged countries to make sure services are available and to expand hotline and online services, and called on communities to report violence and victims to seek support.

Japan tweaks testing criteria; South Korea tracks nightclub exposures

In Asia, Japan's government has dropped fever from its COVID-19 testing criteria in an effort to cast a wider net for the disease, Reuters reported. Earlier guidelines said those who had a fever of 99.5°F or more for 4 consecutive days, alongside breathing difficulty and fatigue, should be screened at public health centers for testing.

South Korea is investigating illnesses related to bars and nightclubs in the Itaewon district of Seoul. In its regular daily update, the Korea Centers for Disease Control urged people to avoid indoor venues such as nightclubs, and if people do visit the locations, to use facemasks and observe any other social distancing and safety measures.

In other developments:

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison today described a three-step plan to ease social distancing that would remove most measures by July and get about 1 million people back to work, Reuters reported.
  • South Africa said it would parole 19,000 low-risk prisoners to help curb the spread of the virus at correctional facilities, Reuters said in a separate report.

  • Kuwait today announced a curfew to begin on May 10 and last through the end of the month, Kuwait News Agency People will only be allowed outside for exercise for 2 hours a day in their residential areas. The country has seen a steady rise in daily cases, with 641 reported today.

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