Although the global Covid-19 emergency has been officially declared over after more than three years, the virus continues to claim lives at a rate of at least one person every four minutes. Critical questions surrounding its management remain unanswered, posing risks to vulnerable individuals and under-vaccinated nations.
One pressing concern revolves around navigating a virus that has become less menacing for most people but remains highly dangerous for a significant segment of the population. This segment is larger than many realize, as Covid-19 remains a leading cause of death, ranking third in the United States in 2022, just behind heart disease and cancer.
However, unlike other common causes of death, such as smoking and traffic accidents, which prompted safety regulations, politicians are not actively advocating for measures to mitigate the harm caused by Covid-19. Mandated vaccinations or mask-wearing in enclosed spaces, for instance, are not being widely pursued.
“While the world’s general desire is to move beyond the pandemic and put Covid-19 behind us, we cannot ignore the ongoing threat,” warns Mr. Ziyad Al-Aly, Director of the Clinical Epidemiology Centre at the Veterans Affairs St Louis Health Care System in Missouri. “Covid-19 continues to infect and claim numerous lives, but we have the means to reduce this burden.”
Despite the World Health Organization’s recent declaration that Covid-19 no longer constitutes an emergency, many governments had already relaxed lockdowns and guidelines. Global leaders, having already expended significant resources during earlier phases of the pandemic, are now scaling back their efforts and are hesitant to pursue preventive measures that the public may no longer tolerate.
Meanwhile, the virus, which has caused at least 20 million deaths worldwide, continues to evolve, leaving the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions vulnerable. Many among this vulnerable population lack access to medicine and receive inadequate protection from those who refuse to wear masks or remain unvaccinated.
A comprehensive, long-term global plan to safeguard the vulnerable and prevent a resurgence has yet to materialize, largely due to the difficulty of achieving consensus regarding Covid-19. From the outset, polarized political discourse has overshadowed official guidelines on mask-wearing and vaccinations. Even in developed countries where vaccines became available within a year of the pandemic’s onset, significant numbers of people refused to be inoculated.
The lack of immunization led to over 300,000 excess deaths in the United States alone in 2021, accounting for one out of every two Covid-19 deaths. Globally, studies indicate that vaccination could have saved an additional half a million lives.
“We recognize that politicizing public health is one of the tragedies of the pandemic,” remarks Mr. Al-Aly. “Political leaders have leveraged their responses not only to promote public health but also to advance their own narratives and garner support for themselves.”
Moreover, global coordination has been hindered by political factors. China’s refusal to grant independent experts unrestricted access to a wet market believed to be a Covid-19 hotspot and the Wuhan Institute of Virology has contributed to diplomatic tensions and mistrust. Currently, Chinese representatives are not fully engaging in global preparation efforts, impeding academic collaboration, particularly between China and the United States.
“This hinders academic collaboration, and China-US collaboration is almost nonexistent,” laments Professor Wang Linfa, a virologist and director of the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “With these two superpowers failing to collaborate, we cannot confidently say the world is prepared for the next disease.”
The diminished sense of urgency surrounding the pandemic has also led to a decline in investment in Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics. While companies like Moderna and Pfizer continue to refine their vaccines to enhance ease of production and storage,