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WHO says COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency. What does this mean?

COVID-19
(Getty)

The World Health Organization says COVID-19 no longer represents a global health emergency, marking a symbolic step towards the end of the pandemic that has killed more than 6.9 million people, disrupted the global economy, and ravaged communities.

The WHO’s emergency committee met on Thursday. It recommended the United Nations agency declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern, which has been in place for more than three years.

“It is therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding the end of the emergency did not mean COVID-19 was over as a global health threat.

What does a global health emergency declaration mean?

The WHO’s emergency committee first declared that COVID-19 represented its highest level of alert more than three years ago, on 30 January 2020. The status helps focus international attention on a health threat as well as bolster collaboration on vaccines and treatments.

The decision to end the global health emergency status was supported by a majority of the committee, Didier Houssin, head of the agency’s COVID-19 emergency committee, said.

Lifting it is a sign of the progress the world has made in these areas but COVID-19 is here to stay, the WHO has said, even if it no longer represents an emergency.

“COVID has changed the world, and it has changed us. And that’s the way it should be. If we go back to how things were before COVID-19, we will have failed to learn our lessons, and failed our future generations,” Mr Ghebreyesus said.

The death rate has slowed from a peak of more than 100,000 people per week in January 2021 to just more than 3,500 in the week to 24 April 2023, according to WHO data, reflecting widespread vaccination, availability of better treatments, and a level of population immunity from prior infections.

What does the end of the declaration mean?

Ending the emergency could mean that international collaboration or funding efforts are also brought to an end or shift in focus, although many have already adapted as the pandemic has receded in different regions.

“The battle is not over. We still have weaknesses and those weaknesses that we still have in our system will be exposed by this virus or another virus. And it needs to be fixed,” the WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said.

So when will the end of the COVID-19 pandemic be?

The WHO does not declare the beginning or end of the pandemic, although it did start using the term COVID-19 in March 2020. “In most cases, pandemics truly end when the next pandemic begins,” Mr Ryan said. Last year, US President Joe Biden said the pandemic was over.

Like a number of other countries the world’s biggest economy has begun dismantling its domestic state of emergency for COVID-19, which officially ends on 11 May, meaning it will stop paying for vaccines and testing for many people and shift responsibility to the commercial market.

Other regions have taken similar steps.

The European Union said in April last year the emergency phase of the pandemic was over and the WHO’s African head, Matshidiso Moeti, said in December it was time to move to routine management of COVID-19 across the continent.

The WHO’s declaration comes just four months after China ended its prolonged severe COVID-19 restrictions and was hit by a big surge in infections.

In many parts of the world, testing has dwindled dramatically and people have largely stopped wearing masks. In some countries, mask-wearing mandates have resumed during COVID-19 outbreaks. The WHO published a plan this week advising countries on how to live with COVID-19 long-term.

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