The World Health Organization, often criticized for being too slow in declaring in 2020 that a pandemic was underway, now — exactly two years to the day after that declaration — says many countries are too quick to declare it over declare and lose their vigilance.
At the time when dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director general, officially declared the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic in the early evening As of March 20, 2020, the virus was already known to have infected more than 120,000 people in 114 countries and killed about 4,300.
Then as now, the agency, an arm of the United Nations, proceeded cautiously and methodically. It was only after weeks of almost daily media briefings, urging the organization’s nearly 200 member countries to contain the virus through testing, contact tracing and isolating those who might be infected, that Dr. Tedros to call the crisis a pandemic. He did it, he said at the time, to attract attention because many countries had failed to take seriously the group’s earlier declaration of a health emergency.
“My first comment that day was, ‘It was about time,'” recalled Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, in an interview this week. “We’ve been in a pandemic for a while and we haven’t necessarily acted that way. We needed that message to kick start them from a global perspective.”
That day, the NBA suspended its season and actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, his wife, announced they had contracted the virus. In the days that followed, Broadway closed its curtains, stock markets plummeted, and schools and businesses closed their doors. President Donald J. Trump has closed US borders to most travelers from continental Europe. The known count in the United States on March 11 was 1,263 cases and 37 deaths; soon the nation would be the global epicenter of the pandemic.
Two years later, American states and many countries are rushing to drop public health precautions, reducing testing and lifting restrictions, citing the rapid decline in the omicron surge – and the WHO says: Not so fast.
In several forums this week, the agency urged continued vigilance, particularly regarding injustices. In a stark update on the threat the virus continues to pose, the WHO’s regional arm for the Americas said the Western Hemisphere, with less than 13 percent of the world’s population, reported 63 percent of all new known coronavirus cases in the first two months of 2022.
“This virus fooled us every time” said dr Benjamin. “So they are suitably cautious.”
The agency has been trying for months to keep its wealthier member states from being way ahead of the rest. In August, the WHO requested a moratorium on booster vaccinations to free up vaccine doses for the billions of people who are still unvaccinated in poorer countries, with exceptions only for immunocompromised people. As recently as Tuesday, the agency gave broader support for booster shots.
A new recommendation followed on Wednesday to greatly expand shipments of self-test kits in poor countries where professional testing can be very expensive.
“This hampers our ability to see where the Covid-19 virus is, how it’s spreading and evolving,” said Dr. Tedros on the lack of testing in poor countries.
But it could be months before the testing initiative makes much headway if the struggles of Covax, the global coronavirus vaccine distribution program, are any indication. Just 14 percent of people in the low-income countries that Covax is designed to help most have received a dose, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.
With more than 10 million new coronavirus cases reported last week – almost certainly an undercount as testing rates have fallen significantly – WHO’s biggest challenge now is the same as it was two years ago: the member countries that fund its work, to make them heed their warnings.
“The pandemic is far from over,” said Dr. Tedros on Wednesday, “and it won’t be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”