Country-wide lockdowns may not be a thing of the past, according to the World Health Organization. Global coronavirus cases continue to climb, with over 12 million now reported worldwide – more than double the amount of confirmed cases reported six weeks ago.

Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said at a press conference Friday that countries may have to go into lockdown again — or for the first time. 

“We all want to avoid whole countries going back into total lockdown, that is not a desire that anybody has,” he said. “But there may be situations in which that is the only option.”

Ryan called whether or not mass lockdowns will again be required the “fundamental question” facing every community, and every society. 

“Once lockdowns were ended there was always the risk that the disease could bounce back,” he said.

The WHO has advised countries to open slowly, paying close attention to their data to move cautiously between different phases of reopening. Ryan said countries should be “ready to move backwards or forwards” depending on the numbers they are seeing. 

“Accept the fact that in our current situation it is very unlikely that we can eradicate or eliminate this virus,” he said, noting that this gives the virus an opportunity to reemerge. 

Media briefing on #COVID19 with @DrTedros

Ryan compared coronavirus outbreaks to forest fires. Small fires, he said, are easy to put out but difficult to recognize. He advised every country and community to implement a system where it can detect the “small embers,” allowing it to only lock down small areas in order to contain the virus.

“When the virus is present there is a risk of spread,” he said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, echoed Ryan’s analogy. “We know how quickly these embers can turn into forest fires,” she said, adding that it’s something we all need to anticipate. 

Kerkhove stressed, however, that it is entirely possible to contain small outbreaks. 

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, noted that several countries have also been brought back from severe outbreaks. He listed Italy, where more than 34,000 people died from the unchecked virus, as among those countries. 

Italy’s famed ancient landmarks and museums have recently started to reopen

“Across all walks of life we’re all being tested to the limits,” Tedros said. 

“The best shot we have is to work together in national unity and global solidarity.”

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