As pandemic persists, WHO seeks ways to gradually restart air travel

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – The World Health Organization wants to work with governments to gradually resume normal passenger travel, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday, while stressing that the global coronavirus crisis is not over.


Tedros followed the advice of the WHO’s coronavirus advisory committee of international medical experts, who held talks this week, three months after the UN health agency had declared a top-level global crisis.

“Of course, the pandemic remains a public health emergency of international concern,” Tedros said in Geneva in an online press briefing.

While infection numbers are stable or decreasing in European and Middle Eastern countries, the coronavirus disease Covid-19 is still on the increase across the Americas.

The WHO has also grown increasingly worried about rising case numbers in fragile or conflict-ridden countries in recent weeks, the agency’s chief emergency officer Mike Ryan said, naming Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and northern Nigeria.     

The advisory committee, which was convened under WHO rules for managing major outbreaks, asked the WHO to develop travel strategies, and to analyze safety measures such as health screening, isolation and quarantines.

“This is a difficult issue because it is a question of confidence between [WHO] member states, it is a question of safe travel,” acknowledged Didier Houssin, a French health policy expert who heads the advisory body.

“But it is also a very important aspect for the activities in many countries which are relying very much on air travel,” he added.

As countries have imposed travel restrictions and passenger demand has plummeted, many airlines have grounded aircraft.

This has resulted in a shortage of transport capacity for cargo, including for essential supplies for tackling the Covid-19 crisis.

The advisory committee urged countries to “avoid restrictions on international transport of food, medical and other essential supplies.”

The disruption of air traffic has created a massive backlog of vaccine shipments that could result in outbreaks of preventable diseases, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned in a separate briefing.

For the past two weeks, the UN agency has seen planned shipments drop by between 70 and 80 per cent.

In addition, freight rates have jumped 100 to 200 per cent.

More than two dozen countries in Africa and Asia are at an especially high risk of running out of vaccine stocks because they are difficult to reach, UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said.

“Children’s lives are at stake,” said Mercado.

Last year, her organization procured 2.43 billion vaccine doses for 100 countries, to immunize approximately 45 per cent of all children below the age of five against diseases such as measles and polio.

Governments, corporations and air carriers should free up affordable freight capacities to overcome the supply chain disruption, Mercado said.

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