On May 5, the The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that we are no longer in a global COVID-19 emergency. The emergency was first declared over three years ago in the early days of the pandemic. During the 15th meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee regarding COVID-19, the members highlighted a decreasing trend in deaths, decline of COVID-19 related hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions, and higher levels of population immunity to the virus as the basis of their decision.
“With great hope, I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced during a media briefing.
[Related: Biden will end COVID-19 national emergencies in May. Here’s what that means.]
However, Tedros stressed that just because the global emergency declaration is ending, it does not mean that COVID-19 is not still a threat to public health. “As we speak, thousands of people around the world are fighting for their lives in intensive care units. And millions more continue to live with the debilitating effects of post-COVID19 condition,” Tedros said.
The WHO first made the emergency declaration on January 30, 2020, when only 213 people were known to have died from the novel virus. The declaration was a signal to the international community that COVID-19 posed a threat to the whole world and that they should begin to prepare.
The WHO will continue to list COVID-19 as a pandemic, similar to how they designate HIV. While it acts as a symbolic milestone, this decision does not change much, but it is a significant moment in the evolving human relationship with the novel virus that brought life to a screeching halt in 2020 after it first emerged in China in December 2019.
Many countries, including the European Union, have already ended their COVID-19 states of emergency and have moved away from mitigation efforts. The United States is scheduled to lift its COVID-10 emergency on May 11.
The WHO decision was not welcomed by all public health experts. Respiratory physician and member of Brazil’s National Academy of Medicine Margareth Dalcolmo told The New York Times that it was too soon to lift the emergency, due to the urgent tasks such as research into COVID variants and development of better vaccines. She added that the designation of a global public health emergency also creates leverage for lower-income nations to access needed treatments and support.
Around the world, 765,222,932 confirmed COVID cases, including 6,921,614 deaths, have been reported to the WHO as of May 3. However, these figures are likely a vast undercount of the pandemic’s true toll on human life. In 2022, the WHO said 15 million more people had died in the first two years of the pandemic than they would have in normal times, with developing and indigenous nations experiencing the worst of the devastation. Close to eight million more people than expected died in lower-middle-income nations by the end of 2021.
[Related: White House invests $5 billion in new COVID vaccines and treatments as national emergency ends.]
“One of the greatest tragedies of COVID-19 is that it didn’t have to be this way. We have the tools and the technologies to prepare for pandemics better, to detect them earlier, to respond to them faster, and to mitigate their impact But globally, a lack of coordination, a lack of equity, and lack of solidarity meant that those tools were not used as effectively as they could have been,” Tedros said.
Additionally, on May 4, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data that COVID-19 dropped to the fourth leading cause of death in the US in 2022, falling behind heart disease, cancer, and unintended injuries like shootings, car accidents, and drug overdoses. In 2020 and 2021, only heart disease and cancer were ahead of COVID-19 as leading causes of death.
Death rates due to COVID-19 fell for nearly all Americans and the virus was the underlying cause of roughly 187,000 deaths in the US in 2022. According to the CDC, the highest COVID-19 death rates were in the South and in the adjacent region that stretches west to Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.