In its final press conference of the year, experts with the World Health Organization urged the international community to view the current coronavirus pandemic as a “wake-up call” as worse health crises loom.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO Emergencies Program head, said Monday during a virtual press conference of U.N. health body officials that they must learn from the current health crisis to honor those who have lost their lives to it and to prepare for the next pandemic, “which may be more severe.”

“This pandemic has been very severe,” he said. “It spread around the world extremely quickly and has affected every corner of this planet, but this is not necessarily the big one.”

He said since we live on a fragile planet within an increasingly complex global system the threat of pandemics will continue and if there is only one lesson to be learned from COVID-19 and the tragedy and loss it has wrought it is that “we need to get our act together.”

“We need to get ready for something which may be more severe in the future,” he said. “In this, we must honor those we have lost by getting better at what we do every day.”

The press conference was held days ahead of the one-year anniversary since WHO learned on Dec. 31, 2019, from Chinese health authorities of people falling ill from a “pneumonia with unknown cause” in Wuhan city.

In March, it declared the outbreak a pandemic, during which more than 81.2 million people have contracted the virus, including 1.77 million who have died from COVID-19, according to a live tracker of the virus by Johns Hopkins University.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said countries that had experienced infectious disease outbreaks, such as SARS in 2003, MERS in 2015 and others, had a response that was conducted by “muscle memory” and a health infrastructure and workforce built from trauma.

“It may not be the most high-income countries across in the world but using the resources, the people, the communities to the best of their abilities and in doing so and having that trauma of previous outbreaks when they heard our warnings early on … used that as a call to say this is something big,” she said.

She told reporters that she hopes they have all gained that same muscle memory through this traumatic year to propel the international community to build societies “that are prepared for the next one.”

“We are leaning. We will continue to learn and I am hopeful that we will be better prepared for the next one,” she said. “But we cannot go from this pattern of urgency to neglect.”
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