On May 5, the WHO Emergency Committee declared that the coronavirus health emergency, which began on January 30, 2020, was coming to an end. In the announcement, the director general of the UN agency recalled that, 1,221 days ago, the Organization was notified of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China.
“On January 30, 2020, on the advice of an Emergency Committee convened under the International Health Regulations, I declared a public health emergency of international concern due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, the highest level of alarm under international law,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus said in the statement.
At that time of uncertainty, fewer than 100 cases and no deaths had been reported outside of China, Tedros noted, before commenting that “in the three years since then, COVID-19 has turned our world upside down.”
In these three years, the WHO was notified of almost 7 million deaths from the coronavirus. Still, it is known that the real number of victims is higher: at least 20 million, according to the data that the organization itself manages. In addition to the deaths, Dr. Tedros recalled that health systems have been seriously affected and millions of people were unable to access essential health services due to high demand.
The leader commented that, for more than a year, the pandemic has followed a downward trend that “has allowed most countries to return to the life they knew before COVID-19.” In fact, since the beginning of the year, the number of reported infections and deaths from the disease has been decreasing globally: in the last week of April, the WHO confirmed 630,000 cases worldwide and 3,500 deaths, when in January it exceeded a million positive cases and 14,000 deaths, partly due to a wave of infections in China.
“Yesterday, the COVID-19 Emergency Committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern. I have accepted that advice. With great hope I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” he announced.
A moment of celebration
“It is a moment of celebration, achieved after the tireless work of millions of health workers, much innovation and research, difficult decisions made by governments and sacrifices that we have all had to make,” Tedros said in his recent statement.
However, the representative assured that one of the worst parts of the COVID-19 tragedy is that it need not have been the way it was. He specified that the tools, technology and conditions exist to deal more efficiently with this type of situation and mitigate its impact.
“The worst thing that countries could do now is use this news as an excuse to lower their guard, dismantle the systems they have built, or send the message to the population that there is no need to worry anymore,” he warned. “Thousands of people around the world are fighting for their lives in intensive care units.”
Much more than a health crisis
As the director of the WHO expressed, the pandemic has been much more than a health crisis. Its impact on the different orders of life in countries has been enormous. Let’s look at some of these repercussions:
Economic impact: “The biggest crisis in more than a century”
According to a World Bank report for 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic sent a shock wave through the entire world economy, triggering the biggest crisis in more than a century. This led to a drastic increase in inequality within and between countries.
At the start of the pandemic, a determined response was launched through economic policies that, although it managed to mitigate the most severe human costs in the short term, gave rise to new risks, such as the sharp increase in private and public debt levels in the world economy, which affects the prospects for recovery, the report said.
These impacts were especially severe in emerging economies, such as Cuba’s, where income losses revealed and exacerbated certain factors of pre-existing economic fragility.
The crisis had a drastic impact on poverty and inequality around the world. Global poverty increased for the first time in a generation. It is also estimated that between 75 and 95 million people were pushed into poverty in these years. Earnings loss was also higher among youth, women, the self-employed, and casual workers with lower levels of formal education.
Social impact of the pandemic: children and young people among the most affected
Another World Bank report dated February 16, 2023, states that the pandemic caused a “massive collapse of human capital” at key moments in the life cycle, negatively altering the course of development for millions of children and youth in countries of low and middle income.
The document concludes that today’s students could lose up to 10% of their future income due to the crises in educational systems caused by COVID-19. On the other hand, the cognitive deficit in young children of the present could translate into a 25% decrease in earnings as adults.
“School closures, related lockdowns, and service disruptions during the course of the pandemic have been a threat that could destroy decades of progress in building human capital,” said David Malpass, president of the World Bank Group.
Due to the pandemic, preschool children have lost more than 34% of learning in early language and literacy, and more than 29% of learning in mathematics, compared to pre-pandemic cohorts. For school-age children, on average, for every 30 days of school closures, students lost around 32 days of learning due to ineffective distance learning measures implemented as an alternative to the face-to-face teaching crisis.
In low- and middle-income countries, nearly 1 billion children lost at least a full year of face-to-face education due to school closures, and more than 700 million lost a year and a half. As a result, learning poverty ― already at 57% before the pandemic ― has risen further in these countries, with an estimated 70% of 10-year-olds unable to understand a basic text.
COVID-19 hit youth employment hard. At the end of 2021, 40 million young people who would have had a job under normal conditions did not. The income of this group contracted 15% in 2020 and 12% in 2021. Data from Brazil, Ethiopia, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa and Vietnam indicate that 25% of all youth did not receive education, employment, or training in 2021.
Political impact of the pandemic: “COVID-19 has exacerbated political divisions within and between nations”
According to the director of the WHO, “COVID-19 has exacerbated political divisions within and between nations. It has eroded trust between people, governments and institutions….”
When the progressive decrease in the number of cases became evident and a discreet recovery of the world economy was already in sight, the war broke out in Ukraine, dashing any hope of normality. This war resulted in an increase in the price of hydrocarbons and inflation worldwide, a slowdown in economic recovery and a greater division between the West and Russia. On the other hand, relations between China and the United States, two great economic powers, have experienced moments of great tension at this time.
On the other hand, the list of countries whose societies have experienced moments of crisis during these three years would be endless. The unprecedented assault on the Capitol in the United States, protests in Canada, France, the Netherlands and the Asian Giant itself, which forced the “Zero COVID” policy to be left behind are an example of how both the health emergency and the measures that were adopted to contain it have impacted the crisis.
The pandemic in Cuba
In our country, the first cases of the pandemic were diagnosed on March 11, 2020. Since then, according to official figures, 1,113,507 cases of the disease have been diagnosed in our country, with 8,503 deaths.
However, an in-depth analysis of the official figures during the years 2020 and 2021, shows that there was excess mortality of 55,200 deaths in 2021, almost 50,000 more than what the WHO had predicted for our country. Eighty-five percent of this excess deaths affected those over 60 years of age and, especially, those over 75 years of age with more than 30,000 deaths.
For the rest, our country has not been exempted from the economic, social and political impact that this phenomenon has had throughout the world. The island continues to be plunged into a difficult economic situation in which the pandemic is a contributing factor. In the summer of 2021, the largest protests in the last 30 years took place in the country and from a social point of view, the greatest impact has been the enormous migration crisis that has taken place since November 2021.
On the other hand, I cannot fail to mention the impact that the obtaining and administration of nationally produced vaccines had and continues to have in controlling the epidemiological situation in the country. So far, more than 44 million doses have been administered and more than 10 million Cubans have the full vaccination scheme. This has allowed the country to return to normal since May 31 of last year.
The end of the health emergency, as the WHO authorities rightly stated, is not the end of COVID-19. Every day around the world hundreds of people continue to die from the disease. However, it is unlikely that, with the level of immunity reached, the pathogen will again have an impact as serious as the one we are already experiencing.
Much more worrisome is the latent possibility of the emergence of new pandemics. Monkeypox, which is still considered an international health emergency, as well as the recent outbreak of Marburg disease, closely related to the Ebola virus, and even Influenza and HIV/AIDS, are zoonotic diseases. COVID-19 was also at the time. The natural reservoir of the virus was bats, from there it passed to another host and finally to humans, triggering the biggest health emergency of the last century.
As long as humanity’s relationship patterns with nature do not change, the risk of new outbreaks remains latent. Increasing loss of forests, loss of arable land, and illegal wildlife trafficking are creating dangerous conditions that could lead to new diseases. We must be prepared for this to happen.