Sunday, June 4, 2023

Covid-19 is no longer a global health emergency, says WHO

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has sickened or killed almost 800 million people over three years, no longer constitutes a global health emergency, the head of the World Health Organization has said.

The WHO first gave Covid its highest level of alert on 30 January 2020, and its panel has continued to apply the label at meetings held every three months.

While the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced on Friday the UN health agency was downgrading Covid’s alert status, he also delivered a stark warning about its persistent threat. The disease still killed someone every three minutes, he said.

“Yesterday, the emergency committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern,” said Tedros. “I’ve accepted that advice.”

He added: “It’s therefore with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency. However, that does not mean Covid-19 is over as a global health threat. Last week, Covid-19 claimed a life every three minutes – and that’s just the deaths we know about.”

The global health emergency status helped focus international attention on the Covid threat, as well as bolstering collaboration on vaccines and treatments. Lifting it is a sign of the progress the world has made in these areas, but Covid-19 is here to stay, health officials believe, even if it no longer represents an emergency.

The WHO does not declare the beginning or end of pandemics, although it did start using the term for Covid in March 2020. Tedros said the decision to downgrade the alert status did not mean the danger was over, cautioning that the emergency status could be reinstated if the situation changed.

“The worst thing any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard, to dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that Covid-19 is nothing to worry about,” he said.

Covid has officially claimed more than 6.9 million lives, and affected the health of more than 765 million others, according to the WHO. It said the true figures were likely to be much higher. Covid deaths globally have plunged by 95% since January, but the disease still killed 16,000 people worldwide last month alone.

Despite the lingering danger, the pandemic has faded from mind in many if not most countries. This week, Tedros said testing and tracing efforts had “declined significantly around the world, making it more difficult to track known variants and detect new ones”.

He has also warned of the ongoing impact of long Covid, which provokes a long line of often severe and debilitating symptoms that can drag on for months or years. The condition is estimated to affect one in 10 people who contract Covid, suggesting hundreds of millions of people could need longer-term care, he has said.

Long Covid was devastating lives and livelihoods and wreaking havoc on health systems and economies, Tedros told the Guardian last year as he urged countries to launch immediate and sustained efforts to tackle the “very serious” crisis.

“While the pandemic has changed dramatically due to the introduction of many lifesaving tools, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, the impact of long Covid for all countries is very serious and needs immediate and sustained action equivalent to its scale,” he said.

He added: “Early in the pandemic, it was important for overwhelmed health systems to focus all of their life saving efforts on Covid-19 patients presenting with acute infection. However, it is critical for governments to invest long-term in their health system and workers and make a plan now for dealing with long Covid.”

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