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File image of WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Alamy Stock Photo

WHO declares an end to Covid-19 global health emergency

The coronavirus outbreak killed at least seven million people worldwide – and health chiefs stressed that the pandemic is not over.

LAST UPDATE | 5 May 2023

THE WORLD HEALTH Organisation (WHO) has said Covid-19 no longer qualifies as a global emergency.

The announcement marks a symbolic end to the devastating coronavirus pandemic that triggered once-unthinkable lockdowns, upended economies worldwide and killed at least seven million people worldwide.

The WHO said that even though the emergency phase is over, the pandemic has not come to an end, noting recent spikes in cases in south-east Asia and the Middle East.

The UN health agency said that thousands of people are still dying from the virus every week.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “It’s with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency.

“That does not mean Covid-19 is over as a global health threat.”

When the UN health agency first declared the coronavirus to be an international crisis on 30 January, 2020, it had not yet been named Covid-19 and there were no major outbreaks beyond China.

More than three years later, the virus has caused an estimated 764 million cases globally and about five billion people have received at least one dose of vaccine.

Health minister Stephen Donnelly said that the WHO’s announcement “marks a symbolic end” to a pandemic that had a “profound impact”.

“It has affected our health, our economy, our everyday activities, and caused devastation through the loss of so many lives.

“While COVID-19 remains a global health threat, we have learned to live with it and return to normal life.”

Chief Medical Officer Breda Smyth said: The success of Ireland’s vaccination programme in building population-wide immunity has played a huge role in preventing thousands of hospitalisations and deaths and has enabled the return to normal social and economic life. 

“It is vital that those eligible for primary COVID-19 vaccination and who have not yet received it, and those eligible for boosters, continue to come forward to strengthen their immunity and prevent severe disease.”

She added: “It’s also very important that people’s individual choices with regard to personal protective behaviours continue to be respected.”

In the US, the public health emergency declaration made regarding Covid-19 is set to expire on 11 May, when wide-ranging measures to support the pandemic response, including vaccine mandates, will end.

Many other countries, including the Ireland, the UK, Germany and France, dropped many of their provisions against the pandemic last year.

When Dr Tedros declared Covid-19 to be an emergency in 2020, he said his greatest fear was the virus’ potential to spread in countries with weak health systems he described as “ill-prepared”.

In fact, some of the countries that suffered the worst Covid-19 death tolls were previously judged to be the best-prepared for a pandemic, including the US and UK.

According to WHO data, the number of deaths reported in Africa account for just 3% of the global total.

The WHO made its decision to lower its highest level of alert on Friday, after convening an expert group on Thursday.

The UN agency does not “declare” pandemics, but first used the term to describe the outbreak in March 2020, when the virus had spread to every continent except Antarctica, long after many other scientists had said a pandemic was already under way.

The WHO is the only agency mandated to coordinate the world’s response to acute health threats, but the organisation faltered repeatedly as the coronavirus unfolded.

In January 2020, the WHO publicly applauded China for its supposed speedy and transparent response, even though recordings of private meetings obtained by The Associated Press showed top officials were frustrated at the country’s lack of cooperation.

The WHO also recommended against members of the public wearing masks to protect against Covid-19 for months, a mistake many health officials say cost lives.

Numerous scientists also slammed WHO’s reluctance to acknowledge that Covid-19 was frequently spread in the air and by people without symptoms, criticising the agency’s lack of strong guidance to prevent such exposure.

Dr Tedros was a vociferous critic of rich countries who hoarded the limited supplies of Covid-19 vaccines, warning that the world was on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” by failing to share jabs with poor countries.

Most recently, the WHO has been struggling to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, a challenging scientific endeavour that has also become politically fraught.

After a weeks-long visit to China, the WHO released a report in 2021 concluding that Covid-19 most likely jumped into humans from animals, dismissing the possibility that it originated in a lab as “extremely unlikely”.

But the UN agency backtracked the following year, saying “key pieces of data” were still missing and that it was premature to rule out that Covid-19 might have ties to a lab.

A panel commissioned by the WHO to review its performance criticised China and other countries for not moving quicker to stop the virus, and said the organisation was constrained both by its limited finances and inability to compel countries to act.

Press Association
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