Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, December 20, 2021.
Denis Balibouse | Reuters
The spread of Covid-19 is no longer a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization declared Friday.
“For more than a year, the pandemic has been on a downward trend with population immunity increasing from vaccination and infection, mortality decreasing, and the pressure on health systems easing,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva.
“This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before Covid-19,” Tedros said. “It is therefore with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency.”
Nearly 7 million people have died from the virus worldwide since the WHO first declared the emergency on Jan. 30, 2020, according to the U.N. organization’s official data. Tedros said the true death toll is at least 20 million.
The WHO’s decision comes as the U.S. is set to end its national public health emergency on Thursday.
Tedros said there is still a risk that a new variant could emerge and cause another surge in cases. He warned national governments against dismantling the systems they have built to fight the virus.
“This virus is here to stay. It’s still killing and it’s still changing,” he said.
But the WHO chief said the time has come for countries to transition from an emergency response to managing Covid like other infectious diseases.
Covid was first observed in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, when several patients began to experience pneumonia symptoms with unknown cause.
Covid moved rapidly around the globe in early 2020 leading to an unprecedented shutdown of international travel and border closures as countries unsuccessfully tried to prevent the spread of the virus.
Covid devastated the elderly and other vulnerable populations and ravaged hospitals that didn’t have the bed capacity or supplies to manage the sudden surge of suffering and death.
Many national governments shut down public life in a desperate effort to stop the death, leading to a severe economic downturn and social disruption, the long-term consequences of which likely won’t be fully understood for years to come.
“Covid-19 has been so much more than health crisis,” Tedros said. “It has caused severe economic upheaval, erasing trillions from GDP, disrupting travel and trade, shattering businesses and plunging millions into poverty,” he said.
“It has caused severe social upheaval with borders closed, movement restricted, schools shut and millions of people experiencing loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression,” Tedros said.
China has faced fierce criticism for not alerting the world earlier, an allegation Beijing denies. Critics have also accused the WHO of relying too much on information from Beijing at the outset of the pandemic.
More than three years later, the origins of the virus are still a hotly contested mystery. Scientists, government officials and the general public continue to debate whether Covid spilled over to humans from an infected animal, or leaked from a lab in China.
The U.S. intelligence community is divided in its assessment of Covid’s origins.
The U.S. government, allied nations and the WHO have criticized the Chinese government for not providing transparent access to data that could help determine how the pandemic started.