JOINT STATEMENT BY United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dr. Ingrid Macdonald, and the World Health Organization Representative for BiH, Dr. Victor Olsavszky

COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Surveillance Remain Essential to suppress the epidemic and open the economy

The United Nations and World Health Organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina are concerned with reports that medical institutions across the country are close to maximum capacity given the recent sharp increase in COVID19 infections. Whilst maintaining the adequate supply of testing units, protective equipment and beds remain critical, of concern is the need for increased contact tracing, surveillance and specialist human resource capacity, especially front-line doctors and nurses. We cannot leave doctors and nurses to fight this crisis alone.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s efforts at the start of the pandemic were highly effective: health care providers, front line workers, the authorities and the people of BiH successfully mitigated the most severe impacts of COVID-19. Through strict measures and the discipline of ordinary people, BiH maintained a relatively low infection and fatality rate compared to other countries in Europe. These efforts afforded time to prepare the health system with necessary medical and personal protective equipment. With the generous support of many international donors, and in solidarity with the health authorities and medical professionals, the United Nations through UNDP, with WHO support, delivered over 2.1 million items of PPE, with ongoing procurement of 2 million more. Over 40, 000 testing kits, close to 15,000 protective suits have been delivered, along with RT-PCR machines, ventilators, X-ray and ECG machines.

It is understandable that countries around the world, including BiH, wish to reopen their economies and avoid the re-imposition of strict measures such as curfews and business closures. The most effective way in which we’ve seen governments manage to ‘re-open’ is where they ensure low rates of infection, a well-managed case load, and communicate consistently and regularly with the population. Despite the recent escalation in infections and stress on the health systems, BiH can still achieve balance between protecting public health and ensuring economic recovery, including the resumption of tourism and other vital development activities.

In this regard, important actions which could be taken in BiH include:

• Expand testing, contact tracing and surveillance capacities, increase the capacity of healthcare facilities; increase support to and the numbers of specialist healthcare workers, and ensure adequate supplies. One of the most important tools for suppressing COVID-19 transmission is contact tracing. It has long been the bedrock of outbreak response, from smallpox to polio, to Ebola and now, COVID-19. We have seen in other countries how this virus can be contained through aggressive and targeted tactics – with the rigorous finding, isolating and treating of infections.

• Minimize healthcare disruptions and ensure continued provision of essential health services for non-COVID19 related illnesses, so that all who need health care can receive it. It is critical to avoid a situation where more lives are lost due to the disruptive consequences of the pandemic, than to the virus itself. Of priority is continuing or immediately resuming immunization programs which are vital to avoid outbreaks of other communicable diseases, especially measles.

• With the upcoming start of the school year, increase support for flexible and innovative learning arrangements that safeguard the health and welfare of students, teachers, parents and the community. It is important to balance health risks with the impacts of lost education, isolation for children and stress on parents.

• Invest in recovery that is sustainable, green, fair and inclusive, with a focus on supporting those most impacted by, and vulnerable to COVID19. The UN has provided $37 million in COVID related support in BiH. Through a targeted Socio-Economic Recovery Offer, the UN is preparing more initiatives aimed at supporting recovery in the areas of health, education, disaster risk management, social cohesion, and local recovery.

Ultimately, the most effective means for controlling the infection outbreak remains personal vigilance and the solidarity of people to help protect each other. Five months into the pandemic, it is understandable that people are tired and that we are all eager to return to ‘normal’. However, until there is a vaccine, we must contend with the ‘new normal’ – where simple actions, such as wearing masks, regularly washing hands, using hand sanitizer and maintaining adequate distance can save lives. Every person has a role to play to help contain the virus and enable the re-opening of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The United Nations remains committed to continuing and increasing support to these efforts.

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