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WHO Elevates Coronavirus Threat to Highest Level

Health + Wellness
WHO Elevates Coronavirus Threat to Highest Level
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a daily press briefing on COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters on Feb. 28 in Geneva. FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

The World Health Organization on Friday raised the global risk of the new coronavirus to its highest level and reiterated the necessity of worldwide containment efforts as U.S. President Donald Trump continued to face widespread criticism over how his administration has handled the public health crisis so far.


Since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak began in Wuhan, China late last year, it has infected more than 83,000 people globally, killing over 2,800, according to the Associated Press. A large majority of the cases have been in mainland China; however, the virus has reached more than 50 countries, with hundreds of confirmed cases in South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran.

"Our epidemiologists have been monitoring these developments continuously, and we have now increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at a global level," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained Friday during a press conference in Geneva with other officials from the United Nations agency.

"What we see at the moment are linked epidemics of COVID-19 in several countries, but most cases can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases. We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities," Tedros said. "As long as that's the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts."

Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, told reporters Friday that "this is a reality check for every government on the planet: Wake up. Get ready. This virus may be on its way and you need to be ready. You have a duty to your citizens, you have a duty to the world to be ready."

Ryan added that it "unhelpful" to ask whether the outbreak is now considered a pandemic, because doing so would mean "we're essentially accepting that every human on the planet will be exposed to that virus. The data does not show that." However, he warned, "if we don't take action ... that may be a future that we have to experience."

As Common Dreams reported Tuesday, Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch has predicted that the virus could ultimately infect between 40 and 70% of the global population, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging U.S. residents to prepare for "significant disruption in their daily lives."

The CDC is tracking COVID-19 cases in the U.S. on its website. The federal agency has also published information about the virus and the national containment response, which includes deploying CDC staffers to dozens of sites across the country.

Despite the agency's efforts, Trump has come under fire for his administration's response to the outbreak. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted Friday that "we're looking at a serious economic downturn because of coronavirus — and the Trump administration is bungling every aspect of this crisis."

Trump announced Wednesday night that he was appointing Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration's coronavirus task force — a move that was pilloried as "utterly irresponsible" by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The congresswoman and other critics highlighted Pence's problematic track record on handling public health issues, including while he was the governor of Indiana.

Pence announced early Thursday that he was appointing a global health official, Ambassador Debbie Birx, as the "White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator," a decision which Politico described as "installing a czar-like figure under him to guide the administration's response to the outbreak after a protracted public dance around how to display the power of the federal bureaucracy to the American people."

The New York Times reported late Thursday that the White House moved to "tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearances" with Pence's office, citing multiple unnamed sources. According to the Times, "Officials insist Mr. Pence's goal is not to control what experts and other officials say, but to make sure their efforts are coordinated, after days of confusion with various administration officials making contradictory statements on television."

However, the news generated concerns among individuals and watchdogs groups — and came amid reporting that a whistleblower from the Department of Health and Human Services has accused the Trump administration of attempting to cover up possibly exposing federal workers to coronavirus by sending them to process Americans evacuated from Wuhan without providing essential training or equipment.

"There's nothing wrong with a coordinated process inside the federal government to make sure it is sending out clear, fact-based information about the widening coronavirus epidemic," said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "But there's every reason to suspect something else is happening — that public health experts are being instructed to stay silent because they are sharing truthful information that the Trump administration finds inconvenient or that contradicts the random musings of the president."

"As we have seen in China's response to the outbreak, muzzling public health experts at a time of a potentially emergent public health crisis is reckless and endangers the public," Carmone added in his statement Thursday. "It should be obvious to the Trump administration, though perhaps it is not, that silencing truthful information about the coronavirus is likely to speed — not stop — its spread."

Trump and his allies, meanwhile, continue to tout the administration's efforts and dismiss critiques as politically motivated attacks. Trump's acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on Friday characterized news coverage of coronavirus as "an attempt to bring down the president" and downplayed its threat level. As Common Dreams reported, some critics responded by charging that Mulvaney was the one politicizing the crisis at the expense of American families.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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