Countries that rush to lift quarantine restrictions designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic risk an "even more severe and prolonged" economic downturn and a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday.
"We are all aware of the profound social and economic consequences of the pandemic," Tedros said during a briefing at the agency's headquarters in Geneva. "Ultimately the best way for countries to end restrictions and ease their economic effects is to attack the virus."
Globally, more than 1 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, including at least 55,781 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The outbreak, which emerged in China a little over three months ago, has hit economies hard as cities shut down, putting people out of work.
Earlier in the week, WHO officials said they were deeply concerned about the rapid escalation and global spread of the outbreak.
Tedros on Friday called on countries to help their citizens by expanding social welfare programs, moving financial barriers and ensuring public health measures are "fully funded."
"If people delay care or avoid it because they can't afford it, they not only harm themselves, they make the pandemic harder to control and put society at risk," he said. "This is an unprecedented crisis which demands an unprecedented response."
On Monday, WHO officials said government lockdowns are not enough to contain the coronavirus outbreak. However, they are necessary, despite their impact on the economy and society, they said. Without them, the coronavirus would kill even more people.
"This is serious. This is a deadly virus, people will get through it, countries will get through it," said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program.
World leaders need to build up their public health systems "if we're going to get out of an interminable cycle of economically punishing lockdowns and shutdowns," Ryan said. "We must get back to be able to control this virus, live with this virus, develop the vaccines that we need to finally eradicate this virus."
WHO officials also said the coronavirus is impacting fights against other infectious diseases such as polio.
"In recent years, we have driven polio to the brink of eradication," Tedros said Friday. Many health-care workers are now supporting the COVID-19 response, causing them to temporarily halt vaccinations for polio in some cases, he said.