El-Ziq pointed out that this had been enabled by a high-level national coordination committee with multi-sectoral engagement.
“A national preparedness and response plan had been in place early in January, long before the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Saudi Arabia on March 2. This whole-of-government approach allowed the right decisions to be taken on time and to be implemented promptly and in a coordinated manner,” he said.
The WHO official noted that the Saudi government had been quick to distribute information and guidance, and engage with communities through mass media and online, stressing important messages such as staying at home, the need to observe social distancing, wash hands regularly, and wear face masks.
“The information was not only provided in Arabic, but also in more than 15 other languages to reach the whole population,” he added.
Under the chairmanship of King Salman, an extraordinary G20 leaders’ summit was held in March to discuss the unprecedented repercussions the world was facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addressing leaders of the G20 member states and invited guests, the king said: “The impact of this pandemic has spread to reach the global economy, financial markets, trade and global supply chains, hampering growth and development and reversing the gains accomplished in the previous years.
“This human crisis requires a global response. The world counts on us to come together and cooperate in order to face this challenge.”
As the rotating president of the G20, Saudi Arabia played a leading role in obtaining pledges from the G20 countries totaling $500 million to fund the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP) for the global fight against COVID-19. Saudi Arabia itself, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered $80 million to the SPRP to support national, regional, and global efforts.
In addition, during the early March days of the pandemic, the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief), the country’s international development agency, made a $10 million donation to the WHO to implement urgent measures to minimize the global spread of the disease and to support countries with vulnerable health systems with their preparedness and response.
KSRelief provided an additional $13 million to the WHO country office in Yemen to purchase critical medical supplies and equipment, including personal protective equipment for health workers, laboratory tests, and trauma medication, to support the country’s readiness to respond to COVID-19.
In all, Saudi Arabia has to date provided $103 million to the WHO to combat the pandemic. The prominent role that the Saudi Arabia has and will continue to play, through its G20 leadership and national institutions is expected to only strengthen its partnership with the WHO.
El-Ziq said Saudi Arabia had always collaborated with the WHO to promote health in the Kingdom as well as in other countries. “The strong relation continues as well in the current pandemic, with a number of activities taking place. Seven Saudi hospitals have participated in an international study supported by the WHO to identify the most effective treatment for COVID-19.”
He added that the Saudi Ministry of Health had initially designated 25 hospitals and 80,000 beds, including 8,000 intensive care unit (ICU) beds, for the treatment of COVID-19 cases.
“When needed, more facilities were added, for example, building a 100-bed field hospital in Makkah and Madinah, and later a 500-bed hospital in Jeddah. ICU beds across the country were increased by approximately 2,200 in the past three months. Also, 323 Tetamman clinics were provided across the country as dedicated clinics for COVID-19.”
Access to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing was not only made available free of charge for all suspected COVID-19 cases, but also for anyone who wanted to have the test. “Anyone can have the test by visiting one of the Takkad (rest assured) drive-through centers after making an appointment through the Sehaty app,” El-Ziq said.
With the pandemic still at its peak in July, Saudi Arabia’s leadership made the difficult decision to close the country’s borders to Hajj pilgrims, limiting the number of worshippers to 1,000 from more than 150 nationalities residing in Saudi Arabia.
El-Ziq pointed out that the decision was made based on a risk assessment and analysis of different scenarios in line with WHO guidelines for mass gatherings in the context of COVID-19 to protect the safety of the pilgrims and minimize the risk of transmission inside the country and beyond.
“The World Health Organization welcomed the decision of Saudi Arabia to protect pilgrims’ safety and promote regional and global health security,” he said, adding that it was important to continue applying measures to prevent the spread of the virus until there was an effective treatment or vaccine, which could take time.
While more than 160 potential vaccines were under development, only five of them had reached the final stages (phase 3 human trials), he said. “These trials may take months before we have enough evidence that the vaccine is effective and safe.
“Once an effective vaccine is developed, we need to produce billions of doses to vaccinate most of the susceptible individuals so that the transmission cycle is broken.”
El-Ziq noted that no one could tell when the COVID-19 pandemic would be over, but it was possible that through global efforts and modern technology it could be brought under control.
“We will be able to get rid of it if an effective vaccine or an effective treatment becomes available,” he added.