HomeHealthWhat it means that the COVID-19 pandemic is 'over'

What it means that the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘over’

Dr. Joseph Varon comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit on Thanksgiving at United Memorial Medical Center on November 26, 2020 in Houston. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Friday’s statement by the World Health Organization that the coronavirus emergency was “over” marked the end of a three-year journey that saw the world transformed by a pandemic that killed at least 7 million people and many assumptions about what life would be like. see in the 21st century.

That unwelcome journey began on January 30, 2000, when Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, stated that the novel coronavirus posed a threat serious enough to warrant a global public health emergency.

At the time, there were 170 confirmed deaths in China, where the virus originated sometime in late 2019, but Tedros said he expected things to get worse.

“All countries must be prepared for containment,” he said.

The virus spread from China through Iran to Italy. The United States braced for impact, hoping to somehow avoid the blow. Twenty-one people on the Grand Princess cruise ship fell ill. Trump said he was pleased that passengers off the coast of Northern California remain in quarantine.

Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference.

World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addresses a press conference marking the organization’s 75th anniversary in Geneva on April 6. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

“I like that the numbers are where they are,” he said during a tour of the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 7. “I don’t have to double the numbers because of one ship.”

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But the virus was relentless and thrived in a globalized world of easy travel, dotted with busy cities criss-crossed by commercial airline routes. If illness were a metaphor, then the coronavirus was all too suitable for a hot and busy planet.

On March 11, Tedros declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The United States went into lockdown. Europe followed suit and the seeming totality of human civilization came to a standstill. Big cities emptied, the rich fled to country houses, the tourists disappeared. Planes were empty. Restaurants passed takeout orders through plastic screens. People sanitized and scrubbed. Hand washing videos went viral.

At the time, the Trump administration was implementing what it called a “15 days to slow the spread” strategy. The infection rate curve would be flattened, health experts assured the public. Over time, herd immunity would gain the upper hand.

After taking the virus seriously for several weeks, Trump grew impatient. The pandemic would be over by Easter, he predicted. Governors in some Republican states rushed to reopen restaurants and other institutions.

President Donald Trump, smiling wryly, and with Vice President Mike Pence at his side, holds up a sheaf of papers.

Then-President Donald Trump speaks at the start of a new conference with members of his coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence, at the White House on Feb. 26, 2020. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

It would take three years of masks, swabs and injections for the coronavirus to come to a halt worldwide. The availability of vaccines, combined with the protection gained from previous infection, simply gave the virus fewer and fewer opportunities to spread.

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Much of the country remained cautious well into 2021, especially in Democrat-controlled states and cities. But then they too grew impatient, especially after the widespread availability of vaccines significantly reduced the risk of death and serious illness. And as the surprise Republican victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election helped illustrate, dissatisfaction with pandemic restrictions can take a heavy political toll.

After the worst of the Omicron wave passed in January 2022, restrictions gradually lifted, never to return in most places. Others were challenged in court, such as with the Biden administration’s masking requirement for travelers and the vaccine mandate for businesses. The last “we’re-in-this-together” spirit of 2020 dissipated, revealing a nation as intensely polarized as ever.

But when Tedros briefed the media on Friday, it was largely to acknowledge what had become clear: “It is with great hope,” he declared, “I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” adding that it is “time was to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Customers, some wearing masks, look at a mobile phone while waiting for a table outside a restaurant in a busy shopping district on April 18, 2023 in Beijing, China.  China's National Bureau of Statistics more than a year ago reported GDP growth of 4.5 percent in the first quarter of 2023, as the world's second-largest economy showed signs of growth after ending three years of strict zero measures earlier this year.  (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A couple looks at a cell phone as they wait for a table outside a restaurant in a busy shopping district on April 18 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

His announcement was symbolic. Exactly when a virus becomes endemic and settles in a predictable pattern is a matter of epidemiological debate that Tedros did not attempt to resolve. And he pointed out that the virus continues to kill and sicken thousands of people around the world every day. “This virus is here to stay. It’s still deadly and it’s still changing,” Tedros said.

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Most people now seem willing to live with that reality. Even China, long the most cautious country, put aside its tough “zero-COVID” policy after public frustration over lockdowns and relentless testing culminated in public protests late last year.

In the US, public health and national emergencies are also coming to an end. Vaccination requirements for federal workers and travelers drop next week. President Biden now travels frequently and hosts large rallies at the White House, where masks are becoming increasingly rare.

On Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who has often been criticized by Republicans for her unwavering support for vaccines and masks, announced she was stepping down from the agency. The CDC’s coronavirus tracking dashboard is also being scaled back, with most people not checking infection numbers before making weekend plans.

Malik Jaffer, head nurse, in blue nitrile gloves, prepares a syringe.

Malik Jaffer, chief nurse, prepares to administer a COVID vaccine on March 31 at the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, site of the Ward 4 DC Covid Center, in Washington, DC, which was due to close soon. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Yet many Americans still remain cautious, masking even when outside, continuing to test at the slightest indication of illness and avoiding large indoor gatherings. Though a dwindling minority, they believe Americans too easily abandoned the vulnerable — the elderly, those with weak immune systems — as they sought to re-enter restaurants and sports arenas en masse.

The end of the WHO state of emergency may embolden those who say all remnants of pandemic life – largely useless plastic screens remain in place in many institutions, for example – should be abolished.

There remains a latent desire to return to the world as it was in 2019, before anyone would have ever thought of hoarding KN-95 face masks.

However, that world has disappeared.

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