Dominica-born Director of PAHO Dr. Carissa Etienne
Dominica-born Director of PAHO Dr. Carissa Etienne

Washington D.C., May 12, 2020 (PAHO)—The Director of the Pan American Health Organization, Carissa F. Etienne, called on countries to address health, social and economic emergencies, saying she is "deeply concerned" by the rapid expansion of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in the Americas.

"The pandemic has forced us to address three emergencies at the same time: health, social and economic emergencies. To be successful, we need a joint approach," said Dr. Etienne. "Countries must support their economies while building strong social protection networks and embracing evidence-based public health measures that are essential to saving lives."

PAHO's Director highlighted the rapid expansion of COVID-19. "It took our region three months to reach 1 million cases, but less than three weeks to nearly double that number," she said. More than 1.74 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Americas, with more than 104,000 deaths.

The need to control the pandemic is urgent, given that in the past week, there was a relative 18% increase in cases and a 23% relative increase in deaths, compared to the previous week. Between May 4 and May 11, more than 96,000 additional cases including 5,552 deaths were reported in South America. That represents a 45% relative increase in cases and a 51% relative increase in deaths, compared to the previous week.

In South America, health systems in large urban centers like Lima and Rio de Janeiro are quickly becoming overwhelmed. The impact of COVID-19 on big cities across the Amazon basin also extends to "smaller towns and remote communities, including indigenous areas, where access to health care is challenging," she said.

PAHO continues to coordinate the response across countries, "but we call on national and local health authorities to work even more closely together to contain the spread of the virus and support health system capacity," she told a press briefing here today.

Economy and public health

Noting that increases in unemployment have pushed millions of families into poverty, "While we remain in this dangerous stage of the pandemic, financial resources are needed to help people cope with the economic impacts of staying at home or being out of work. This is vital to keeping the virus in check and reducing the duration of this crisis in each country," Dr. Etienne said.

"Heads of State and Ministers of Health and Finance all face the same dilemma: how to keep their people safe while also protecting the livelihoods of families and communities. It's a difficult balance to strike but not an impossible one." Dr. Etienne announced that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and PAHO will work together to shape a new model where resilient health systems and universal health coverage are viewed as key to economic growth and social protection.

"Only when countries have controlled transmission will they be in a position to implement a well-planned, cautious transition period," Dr. Etienne said. PAHO is working closely with the IMF, the IDB, the World Bank, and others to help coordinate the economic response to the pandemic, she noted.

"COVID-19 reminds us that when we invest in health systems, we keep our people safe and our economies strong. When we guarantee access to health services for everyone, we reduce inequality and build more resilient societies," she added.