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WHO: Covid-19 is no longer a global health emergency

After more than three years of battling the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives and drastically altered daily life around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that it was ending the emergency it had declared for the disease. 

In a momentous step towards recovery and a new normal, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared, “With great hope, I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency.”

The decision to end the emergency status, known officially as a “public health emergency of international concern,” marks a turning point in humanity’s evolving relationship with the novel coronavirus. 

In practical terms, however, this decision does not lead to any major changes, as numerous countries have already lifted their states of emergency for Covid and removed most public health restrictions designed to control the virus. The United States, for example, is set to end its Covid emergency on May 11. Despite this, the virus will continue to maintain its pandemic status according to the WHO, much like HIV.

Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, who headed India’s Public Health Foundation during the pandemic, told the NY Times that the decision to lift the emergency was appropriate, given the high levels of immunity to Covid worldwide, resulting from vaccination, infection, or both. 

Dr. Reddy emphasized that Covid-19 “no longer possesses the same level of danger” and has reached “a level of equilibrium, a certain type of coexistence with the human host.”

Furthermore, Dr. Reddy expressed that the end of the emergency status should be regarded as a moment of human accomplishment and a “celebration of science.” 

“It’s important to recognize that what made the virus change its character is not only evolutionary biology, but also the fact that we have induced it to actually become less virulent, by vaccination, by masks, by a number of public health measures.”

As of May 3, the WHO has reported 765,222,932 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 6,921,614 deaths globally. However, these numbers are considered to be a significant undercount of the true extent of the pandemic’s impact. Independent researchers have estimated that the actual death toll from the virus could be much higher.

A year after the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that 15 million more people had died in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic than would have in normal times, the global health body has officially ended the emergency it had declared for the disease. 

This figure demonstrates the extent to which countries had undercounted victims, with developing nations suffering the most. By the end of 2021, nearly eight million more people than expected had died in lower-middle-income nations.

Despite the official declaration, Covid-19 continues to spread. Between April 3 and 30, the WHO recorded 2.8 million new cases worldwide and more than 17,000 deaths. With many countries having reduced Covid testing, these figures likely represent a significant undercount.

Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Executive Director of Amref Health Africa, stated that it was time to lift the emergency. “The danger of keeping it forever is diluting the tool – you need it to retain its force.” The declaration did help mobilize resources for Africa, but did little to counter the grim reality of what he called “vaccine injustice.” 

Amref continues to support vaccination efforts in 35 African countries, with continent-wide coverage now at 52%.

Dr. Gitahi also highlighted a positive outcome of the pandemic: unprecedented cooperation among African countries, including the creation of an African Union task force to coordinate vaccine procurement.

On May 3, the WHO issued an updated Covid management plan to guide countries in transitioning from emergency response to long-term Covid prevention and control over the next two years. 

Speaking at a meeting of WHO experts in Geneva on Thursday, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reported that for the past 10 weeks, the number of weekly reported Covid deaths had been the lowest since March 2020. As a result, life has returned to normal in most countries, and health systems are rebuilding.

However, Dr. Ghebreyesus cautioned that critical uncertainties about the virus’s evolution persist, complicating predictions of future transmission dynamics or seasonality. 

“Surveillance and genetic sequencing have declined significantly around the world, making it more difficult to track known variants and detect new ones,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus. Moreover, global access to lifesaving Covid treatments remains highly unequal.

Dr. Margareth Dalcolmo warned that the lifting of the global emergency should not be viewed as a milestone, but as an alert. She urged the world to “take this as a time to start being prepared for the next pandemic” and noted that respiratory viruses are expected to increase.

More about the Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, and quickly spread across the globe, affecting virtually every country. The virus primarily spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. It can also spread by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching the face.

Symptoms of Covid-19 can range from mild to severe, with some individuals remaining asymptomatic. Common symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, and loss of taste or smell. In severe cases, the disease can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, organ failure, and death, particularly in older adults and those with underlying health conditions.

In response to the pandemic, countries around the world implemented various measures to control the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, face mask mandates, travel restrictions, and lockdowns. These measures had significant social, economic, and mental health impacts.

Scientists and researchers worked tirelessly to develop vaccines to combat the virus. Several Covid-19 vaccines, including those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson, have been authorized for emergency use and have been widely distributed. Vaccination campaigns have helped reduce transmission rates, hospitalizations, and deaths in many countries.

Throughout the pandemic, the virus has mutated, leading to the emergence of new variants. Some of these variants, such as the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta strains, have shown increased transmissibility or the ability to partially evade immunity from prior infection or vaccination. This has posed challenges in controlling the pandemic and led to renewed surges in some areas.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of global cooperation in public health, the need for equitable distribution of resources like vaccines, and the value of investing in healthcare infrastructure and preparedness for future pandemics.


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