UN Urges Countries to Focus on Mental Health in Coronavirus Response


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The United Nations is calling on governments to focus on mental health services as people all over the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

"After decades of neglect and underinvestment in mental health services, the COVID-19 pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday.

He said health care workers, the old and young, and those with preexisting mental health conditions or who are dealing with conflict and crisis are at the most risk.

"The United Nations is strongly committed to creating a world in which everyone, everywhere, has someone to turn to for psychological support," Guterres said. "I urge governments, civil society, health authorities and others to come together urgently to address the mental health dimension of this pandemic."

The U.N. chief's message followed one from the World Health Organization saying the virus that has so far infected more than 4.3 million people and killed about 300,000 may become endemic like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

It could stay embedded in communities even if a vaccine is found, said WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan during a virtual news conference from Geneva.

"HIV has not gone away, but we have come to terms with the virus," he said.

About 100 organizations worldwide are working on developing a coronavirus vaccine. Even if they find one that works, containing the virus will take a "massive effort," Ryan said.

While some countries are relaxing lockdown orders, the pandemic has had a huge economic effect.

A U.N. report expects the world economy to shrink by more than 3% this year, a sharp departure from January when the world body was predicting growth of 2.5% worldwide.

The pandemic may also force changes to the annual September gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the city hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

In an interview with Paris Match, U.N. chief Guterres said "it is unlikely that thousands of representatives from around the world will be able to gather in New York," but that the world body is looking at digital alternatives. He said member states would make the final decision. This year is the U.N.'s 75th anniversary and the meeting was expected to take on extra significance.

In New Zealand, officials reported no new cases again Thursday as the nation allowed malls, stores and restaurants to reopen. The move is part of the country's staged reopening after a strict monthlong lockdown, and people still must observe social distancing rules and limits on the size of gatherings.

In the U.S., whistleblower Rick Bright warned a congressional committee Thursday that the government has not developed a plan to fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. Bright said the U.S. could experience "the darkest winter in modern history" unless leaders act decisively.

Nearly 3 million laid-off U.S. workers applied for jobless benefits last week as the pandemic forced more companies to cut more jobs, according to the Labor Department. The number of people who have joined the ranks of the unemployed in the two months since the outbreak forced millions of businesses to shut down now stands at about 36 million.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this story from New York.