Geneva—Three years to the day after the World Health Organization (WHO) sounded the highest level of global alert over COVID-19, it said Monday the pandemic remains an international emergency.
The United Nations health agency’s emergency committee on COVID-19 met last Friday for the 14th time since the start of the crisis.
Following that meeting, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “concurs with the advice offered by the committee regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and determines that the event continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC),” the organization said in a statement.
Meanwhile, all countries remain “dangerously unprepared” for the next pandemic, the Red Cross warned on Monday, saying future health crises could also collide with increasingly likely climate-related disasters.
Despite three “brutal” years of the COVID-19 pandemic, strong preparedness systems are “severely lacking”, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.
The world’s largest humanitarian network said building trust, equity, and local action networks were vital to get ready for the next crisis.
WHO’s Tedros, it said, “acknowledges the committee’s views that the COVID-19 pandemic is probably at a transition point and appreciates the advice of the committee to navigate this transition carefully and mitigate the potential negative consequences.”
Even prior to the meeting, the WHO chief had suggested the emergency phase of the pandemic is not over, pointing to surging numbers of deaths and warning that the global response to the crisis “remains hobbled”.
“As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we are certainly in a much better position now than we were a year ago, when the omicron wave was at its peak, and more than 70,000 deaths were being reported to WHO each week,” he told the committee at the start of Friday’s meeting.
Tedros said the weekly death rate had dropped below 10,000 in October but had been rising again since the start of December, while the lifting of COVID restrictions in China had led to a spike in deaths.
In mid-January, almost 40,000 COVID weekly deaths were reported—more than half of them in China—while the true toll “is certainly much higher”, he said.
The WHO first declared a so-called PHEIC as what was then called the novel coronavirus began to spread outside China on Jan. 30, 2020.
Though declaring a PHEIC is the internationally-agreed mechanism for triggering a global response to such outbreaks, it was only after Tedros described the worsening COVID situation as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, that many countries realized the danger.
Globally, more than 752 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported to the WHO, including more than 6.8 million deaths, though the United Nations health agency always stresses that the true numbers are likely much higher.
“All countries remain dangerously unprepared for future outbreaks,” the Red Cross said, concluding that governments were no more ready now than in 2019.
It said countries needed to be prepared for “multiple hazards, not just one”, saying societies only became truly resilient through planning for different types of disaster, as they can occur simultaneously.
The IFRC cited the rise in climate-related disasters and waves of disease outbreaks this century, of which COVID-19 was just one.
It said extreme weather events were growing more frequent and intense, “and our ability to merely respond to them is limited”.
The IFRC issued two reports making recommendations on mitigating future tragedies on the scale of COVID-19, on the third anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring the virus an international public health emergency.
“The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for the global community to prepare now for the next health crisis,” said IFRC secretary general Jagan Chapagain.
“The next pandemic could be just around the corner; if the experience of COVID-19 won’t quicken our steps toward preparedness, what will?”
The report said major hazards harm those who are already vulnerable the most and leaving the poorest exposed was “self-defeating”, as a disease can return in a more dangerous form. AFP
The IFRC said if people trusted safety messages, they would be willing to comply with public health measures and accept vaccination.
But the organization said crisis responders “cannot wait until the next time to build trust”, urging consistent cultivation over time.
The IFRC said if the trust was fragile, public health became political and individualized—something which impaired the COVID response.
It also said the coronavirus pandemic had thrived on and exacerbated inequalities, with poor sanitation, overcrowding, lack of access to health and social services, and malnutrition creating conditions for diseases to thrive in.
“The world must address inequitable health and socio-economic vulnerabilities far in advance of the next crisis,” it recommended.
The organization also said local communities should be leveraged to perform life-saving work, as that is where pandemics begin and end.
The IFRC called for the development of pandemic response products that are cheaper, and easier to store and administer.
By 2025, it said countries should increase domestic health finance by one percent of gross domestic product, and global health finance by at least $15 billion per year.
The IFRC said its network had reached more than 1.1 billion people over the past three years to help keep them safe during the COVID pandemic.