Editorial: How will the world decide when the pandemic is over?

Last Updated on Monday, 20 December, 2021 at 9:52 am by Andre Camilleri

There’s no clear-cut definition for when a pandemic starts and ends and how much of a threat a global outbreak is posing can vary by country. That’s the answer in a nutshell.

“It’s somewhat a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about severity and it’s about impact,” says Dr Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief. In January 2020 WHO designated the virus a global health crisis “of international concern”. A couple of months later, in March, the United Nations health agency described the outbreak as a “pandemic”, reflecting the fact that the virus had spread to nearly every continent and numerous other health officials were saying it could be described as such. The pandemic may be widely considered over when WHO decides the virus is no longer an emergency of international concern, a designation its expert committee has been reassessing every three months. But when the most acute phases of the crisis ease within countries could vary. But for scientists tasked with assessing the global response to Covid-19, governments are not moving fast enough to end the pandemic. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, formed by the WHO, recently released a report calling for the creation of a global pandemic treaty.

“There is not going to be one day when someone says, ‘OK, the pandemic is over’,” says Dr Chris Woods, an infectious disease expert at Duke University. Although there are no universally agreed-upon criteria, he said countries would likely look for sustained reduction in cases over time. Scientists expect Covid-19 will eventually settle into becoming a more predictable virus like the flu, meaning it will cause seasonal outbreaks but not the huge surges we’re seeing right now. But even then, Woods says some habits, such as wearing masks in public places, might continue.” Even after the pandemic ends, Covid will still be with us,” he says. Now we are well used to living like this and approaching a second Christmas with upped restrictions and a new variant rearing its ugly head on the cards. Tremors are already being felt again in the travel sector, as our front-page story with airport CEO Alan Borg explains.

Locally, mandatory mask-wearing has been reintroduced, and it’s being met with some resistance. We are starting to get very tired now, but we must pull together the same rope. As anger spreads across Europe over the re-imposed coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns, the World Health Organization has also warned that the virus could be with us for many years. “The Covid-19 pandemic looks set to go on for quite a long time, months, perhaps years, simply because it’s a highly transmissible virus, meaning people can easily and quickly get infected,” said Dr David Nabarro, the WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy on Covid-19. Several European countries are currently battling a fresh surge of infections with record daily case numbers. Nabarro said the Covid-19 virus has “got the habit of changing over time” and advises governments that want to keep this virus under some degree of control to respect a mix of preventive measures.

“The first thing is that people need to treat it with as much respect as they can and that means face masks covering your face properly. It means trying not to breathe in the air that others have exhaled. And it means practising very good hygiene things that we were good at in 2020, but have recently slipped a bit in some places,” Nabarro said. Now is the time to be extra vigilant; and that applies to us too, right here in Malta. How, and when, are two different questions. When will it end? Not soon.

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