How can countries maintain essential health services during the COVID-19 pandemic?

TR – 04/2020

The relentless corona crisis is placing an enormous strain on healthcare facilities and workers worldwide. In many countries this is overloading existing systems and the threat of a collapse is looming. ‘The best defense against any outbreak is a strong health system,’ stressed WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘COVID-19 is revealing how fragile many of the world’s health systems and services are, forcing countries to make difficult choices on how to best meet the needs of their people.’

Who is WHO?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialised agency of the United Nations that is legally, organisationally and financially independent. It was founded in 1948 with headquarters in Geneva. According to Article 1 of its Constitution, its purpose is to help all people to enjoy ‘the highest attainable standard of health. In addition to promoting the general health of all people, one of its main tasks is to combat infectious diseases.

Concrete guidelines for the current crisis

To help all countries meet these challenges, WHO issued updated guidelines on 30 March 2020. These contain specific measures at national, regional and local level to prevent entire systems from collapsing. The measures cover routine immunisation, pregnancy and childbirth care, care of young children and older adults, management of mental health, infectious diseases and noncommunicable diseases, intensive care in hospitals, and support services such as diagnostic imaging, blood banks and laboratory services. 

Hygiene practices and personal protective equipment must meet the highest standards. In general, all information must be kept up to date at all times. This requires frequent and transparent communication with the general public.

WHO has published the following documents:


When health systems are overwhelmed, both direct mortality from the corona outbreak and indirect mortality from diseases that can be prevented or treated by vaccination increase dramatically.


Disruption to immunisations, even for short periods of time, leads to an increased number of susceptible individuals and increases the likelihood of preventable diseases such as measles.


As part of its global campaign, WHO recommends member states provide access to public hand hygiene stations and make their use compulsory when entering and leaving all public or private business premises and any public transport.

Campaign Day on 5 May 2020

In conjunction with the United Nations International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife 2020 and the ongoing social media campaign #SafeHands, there will be a special ‘Save Lives: Clean Your Hands’ Day in many member states on 5 May 2020. Activities include presenting certificates of recognition for excellence in hand hygiene, governments confirming their commitment to WHO recommendations and a special clap initiative to thank nurses and midwives.