WHO declares that Covid-19 is no longer a global health emergency. What does this mean for us?

While WHO has decided to lift the global health emergency status on Covid-19, it does not mean that the pandemic is over, say doctors.

ByChetana Belagere

Published May 06, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMay 06, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Covid-19: The decision was made at the 15th meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee. (Wikimedia Commons)

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday, 5 May, declared that Covid-19 is no longer a global health emergency. While this is a significant milestone in the fight against the pandemic, it is important to understand what it means for the common man — and for countries, and their efforts to control the spread of the virus.

WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee discussed the pandemic at its 15th meeting on Covid-19. Post this, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanm Ghebreyesus announced that the public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, declaration should end.

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Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Dr Tedros said: “For more than a year, the pandemic has been on a downward trend. This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before Covid-19. The committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern. I have accepted that advice.”

How did the WHO come to this decision?

WHO had declared Covid-19 as a public health emergency of international concern in January 2020, nearly a month-and-a-half before it was declared as a pandemic. This is done by the emergency committee as an agreement between countries to abide by WHO’s recommendations for managing the emergency.

After this, all countries declared their own public health emergencies and created their own resources, rules, and so on.

According to WHO, the latest decision came after a careful review of the situation. The committee concluded that while the virus continues to pose a significant threat, the situation has evolved, and countries are better equipped to handle the pandemic now than they were at the beginning of the outbreak.

This was done as the emergency committee felt that, globally, there is now a better understanding of the virus.

Since the start of the pandemic, scientists and researchers have made significant progress in understanding how the virus spreads and how to treat it. This knowledge has helped countries develop more effective strategies to control the spread of the virus.

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Also, the countries which earlier struggled with limited testing capacity have now, over time, improved significantly in identifying and isolating infected individuals quickly.

Meanwhile, the development of effective vaccines and treatments has been a significant breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19. The availability of these vaccines and treatments has reduced the severity of the disease and helped minimise hospitalisations and deaths.

The committee also has looked into the fact that governments around the world have implemented various public health measures, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and travel restrictions, to control the spread of the virus.

These measures have been effective in reducing the spread of the virus and have helped countries manage the pandemic more effectively.

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What does this mean for us?

For countries, the lifting of the global health emergency status means that they can now focus on long-term strategies for managing the pandemic, rather than short-term emergency measures. It also means that countries can use the knowledge and experience gained during the pandemic to develop more effective policies and measures to control the spread of the virus.

However, for the average person, this declaration, doctors say, may not change things significantly.

Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said at Friday’s press conference: “There’s still a public health threat out there and we all see that every day in terms of the evolution of the virus, in terms of its global presence, its continued evolution and continued vulnerabilities in our communities, both societal vulnerabilities, age vulnerabilities, protection vulnerabilities, and many other things.”

He added, “We fully expect that this virus will continue to transmit, but this is the history of pandemics. In most cases, pandemics truly end when the next pandemic begins.”

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What are Indian doctors saying?

Agreeing with Dr Ryan, Dr Sanjay G, a physician from Bengaluru, said, “It is important to understand that the WHO’s decision to lift the global health emergency status does not mean that the pandemic is over. The virus is still present and spreading in many parts of the world and people must continue to take the necessary precautions to prevent its spread.”

Meanwhile, Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, former president of the Indian Medical Association for Kochi and a member of the Covid committee, said: “I believe that the announcement is technical, that means an emergency is no longer existing. But they have stated that the there are plenty of deaths occurring every day, and a substantial amount of disease — both as a result of immediate infection as well as long-term disease — (exists) among people who apparently recovered from infection.”

He added that this requires our continued attention, especially as the virus is rapidly evolving to evade our immune response. Genomic surveillance is a must, especially as we know a new variant takes only six weeks to cover the whole globe.

The threat of repeated infections looms large, Dr Jayadevan added, of which the long-term impact is unclear yet.

The world will need to have continued measures in place to combat this new disease that did not exist prior to 2020. Combating misinformation is equally important, he added.

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Dr Giridhara Babu, noted epidemiologist and a member of the Covid-19 committee in Karnataka, said, “It is encouraging to see the emergency committee and Dr Tedros declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern for Covid-19. This decision reflects the tremendous efforts of healthcare professionals, researchers, and governments worldwide in controlling the pandemic through vaccination programmes, public health measures, and increased global cooperation.”

“This also marks a significant public health milestone in our collective fight against Covid-19. This is only removal of the highest level of alert and emergency status could be reinstated if circumstances change.

“So, it is crucial for countries to maintain robust surveillance systems to prepare and respond to any infectious disease that can spread rapidly,” he added

He stressed that countries should continue investing in public health infrastructure and human resources, and promote community efforts for health.

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