social isolation
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WHO: “Physical distancing does not mean social isolation”: report from European weekly media briefing (02/04/20)

As the World Health Organisation runs its second weekly media briefing, what is immediately evident is the importance they are placing on individuals coming together and working as a community to tackle the devastating impact of COVID-19. The focus of the conference was publicising WHO suggestions to help mitigate the higher risk Corona poses to the elderly. WHO has offered us as individuals, pragmatic and realistic solutions for the everyday, calling upon every one of us to do what we can to protect the welfare of those most vulnerable in our society while adhering to social isolation. 

The Conference

First, for the facts. At the briefing, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, gave more detailed and up-to-date statistics in relation to the virus – particularly noteworthy was the confirmation of North America as the next epicentre of the disease, largely due to the increase in levels of intra community transmission. 8 out of 10 deaths have occurred in individuals with at least 1 underlying comorbidity, in particular, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes. These existing conditions can weaken the organs and metabolic systems of an individual, having a detrimental impact upon their fight against COVID-19. Other conditions, as well as their potential treatments, such as cancer, reduce the strength of the immune system. This increases the likelihood of initial incurring of the virus, in addition to having a detrimental effect on an individual’s capacity to combat coronavirus. 

What is most potent is the slogan ‘physical distancing does not mean social isolation’

Yesterday, WHO stated that over 95% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in those over 60 – 50% were of those aged 80 or older. They re-emphasised what is now well known; the physiological condition of those over 70 leaves them more vulnerable than a younger citizen to COVID-19. This is something they are focusing on throughout their strategy to tackle Coronavirus, calling upon us all to act in solidarity as one global community to do what we can to help those most at risk. 

Certainly, the most significant advice offered in this conference was the practical, hands-on action that we can all take in the face of COVID-19. What is most potent is the slogan ‘physical distancing does not mean social isolation’ – bringing to the forefront issues surrounding mental health, which are becoming ever more pronounced in the current, global level lockdown. Lockdown is worsening pre-existing issues such as loneliness in older people, and even encouraging new conditions to develop in individuals in isolation such as depression, fear, anger, and anxiety-induced insomnia. Yet, there is some reassurance. Psychological illness is a subject finally being discussed more in modern medicine, with global funding generally on the increase (although still remaining a critically underfunded area). Initiatives such as the WHO Special Initiative “Universal Health Coverage for Mental Health” have spurred governments to take greater notice of these illnesses. We will not simply disregard this progress now that we are faced with the additional threat of Corona. 

Issues surrounding mental health are becoming ever more pronounced in the current, global level lockdown

Yesterday, Dr Hans along with Katie Smallwood (WHO Senior Health Emergency Officer), Alana Officer (WHO Senior Health Advisor), and Manfred Huber, (WHO European Regional Coordinator of Healthy Ageing, Disability and Long-term Care), gave us more information about how we can tackle this ‘echo pandemic’ of lockdown-caused mental illnesses effectively in our daily lives. Firstly, we must all look after the elderly. Dr Hans advises, “if keeping your grandparents safe means you can’t visit them in person, talk to them every day so they don’t feel alone”. Help by volunteering to do the shopping for someone. Sign up to a programme such as NHS Volunteers, to deliver aid in the community.

What WHO offered in this conference as advice to help the elderly is advice that really applies to anyone. We must ensure that our social distance does not inadvertently push us all towards a plague of social isolation and loneliness. Some top tips WHO offered yesterday, to ensure we all stay healthy include:

  1. Stay in contact with your friends and family, such as through daily texts or Skype.
  2. Keep a personal daily routine; you may need to create new routines in these changing and challenging circumstances.
  3. Physical exercise is key to improving both your physical and mental health – bearing in mind current government guidance on social distancing and time outside.
  4. Good sleep is vital, through establishing a good sleep schedule, avoiding blue light before bedtime, and so on.
  5. Find an activity you are passionate about and work at it, such as a new sport, or an online class. 
  6. To avoid the near constant stream of news reports weighing heavily on your mind, seek news updates at specific times of the day (I find the daily UK 5pm updates a great source of reliable information).
  7. Find reassuring sources of support online if you are feeling in particular need of some extra guidance such as blogs.

Global cooperation in the face of crisis

As you may have noticed, this advice has been mirrored all over the internet; is this a sign that, globally, societies are taking more notice of mental health? If so, what more can we gain from yesterday’s briefing and from WHO as a whole? The significance of global cooperation in the face of crises is one that cannot be ignored, and is something that will doubtless be discussed many times once the peak of the epidemic has passed. This briefing is a clear demonstration of the importance of reliable, unbiased information, from a medically sound source – a source of information that everyone, no matter your nationality or political view, can trust. Evidence of this need was clearly seen in the nature of the questions submitted from journalists all over the world, stretching from Russian journalists asking for legitimate and coherent statistics to Greek newspapers inquiring about the optimum strategies to help keep the elderly feeling optimistic. WHO epitomizes the solution to this need, acting as a body vital both today, in the grips of this crisis, and tomorrow, safely rebuilding international society – acting as a coherent and collaborative guide to the best pathway forward for societies into the future. 

This briefing is a clear demonstration of the importance of reliable, unbiased information, from a medically sound source – a source of information that everyone can trust

The key takeaway of Thursday’s (April 2nd) briefing is WHO’s advice to us all on how best to tackle all of the possible effects of Corona. WHO have confirmed that health when COVID-19 is first contracted can change the impact the virus has on our bodies. Therefore, something we should all do is ensure that we are as healthy as possible – leaving Corona with a fight on its hands if it chooses to infect us. Who knows, hopefully these good habits will continue long into the future, even once society has overcome the immediate impact of Corona – helping us all to become healthier and happier throughout our lives.


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