The World Health Organization, often criticized for being too slow to declare in 2020 that a pandemic was underway, now declares – two years to the day after making this declaration – that many countries are too fast for the declare it over and let their guard down.
When the agency’s chief executive, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, officially declared the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic at the start of the evening as of March 11, 2020, the virus was already known to have infected more than 120,000 people in 114 countries, killing around 4,300 people.
Then as now, the agency, a branch of the United Nations, tended to act cautiously and methodically. It was only after weeks of near-daily press briefings, during which he called on the organization’s nearly 200 member countries to contain the virus through testing, contact tracing and isolation of those who might be infected, which Dr. Tedros decided to call the crisis a pandemic. He did it, he said then, to draw attention because many countries were not taking the group’s earlier declaration of a public health emergency seriously.
“My first comment that day was that it was about time,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, recalled in an interview this week. “We had been in a pandemic for a while, and we weren’t necessarily behaving that way. We needed this message to relaunch it, from a global perspective.
That night, Broadway shut down 2020, and the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive. Stock markets plunged. Schools and universities, businesses and offices are closing. And actor Tom Hanks has announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, have been infected with the virus. President Donald J. Trump has closed US borders to most travelers from mainland Europe. The known toll in the United States that day was 1,263 cases and 37 deaths; soon, the nation would be the global epicenter of the pandemic.
Two years later, US states and many countries are rushing to ditch public health precautions, reduce testing and lift restrictions, citing rapid decline in Omicron push – and WHO says: Not so fast .
In several forums this week, the agency has called for continued vigilance, particularly regarding inequality. In a stark update on the threat the virus continues to pose, WHO’s regional branch for the Americas said the Western Hemisphere, with less than 13% of the world’s population, had reported 63% of all known new coronavirus cases in the first two months of 2022.
“This virus has deceived us every time”, says Dr. Benjamin. “That’s why they’re cautious enough.”
The agency has been trying for months to keep its wealthier member countries from running far ahead of the others. In August, the WHO called for a moratorium on booster shots to free up vaccine doses for the billions of people still unvaccinated in the poorest countries, except only the immunocompromised. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the agency gave broader approval for the booster shots.
This was followed on Wednesday by a new recommendation to dramatically increase the supply of self-testing kits in poor countries, where professional testing can be extremely expensive.
“It hampers our ability to see where the Covid-19 virus is, how it spreads and evolves,” Dr Tedros said of the scarcity of testing in poor countries.
But it could be months before the testing initiative progresses, if the struggles of Covax, the global coronavirus vaccine delivery program, are any guide. Only 14% of people in low-income countries that Covax is believed to help the most have received a dose, according to Our world in data project at Oxford University.
With more than 10 million new coronavirus cases reported in the past week – almost surely an undercount, as testing rates have fallen dramatically – the WHO’s biggest challenge is now the same as it was two years ago. : get the member countries that fund his work to heed his warnings.
“The pandemic is far from over,” Dr. Tedros said Wednesday, “and it won’t be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”