As Special Envoys of the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General on Covid-19, we have watched in dismay as the world attempts – too soon, in our opinion – to "get back to normal". Countries around the world have rushed to dismantle many of the public health measures and much of the infrastructure that reduced the spread of Covid-19 and protected so many from complications and death.
The most-effective and easiest public health measures for officials to implement – such as social distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing and management of public venues where people congregate – have, in many places, been eased or even abandoned.
Acting as if the pandemic is over is inviting it back into our lives.
Just as worrying is seeing governments reduce testing, contact tracing and surveillance – the systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of data, including genetic sequencing that alerts us to emerging variants. Whatever the reasons – an assumption that the worst is over; that public health measures are too intrusive and expensive; or that money could be better spent elsewhere – these decisions are wrong. They are premature; they mislead the public; and they are leaving us blind.
Without data, we do not know which variants are circulating where, and we get no warning of more dangerous strains. This amounts to handicapping ourselves and is especially dangerous to vulnerable people, including health care workers, the elderly, immune compromised individuals such as many cancer survivors, and the unvaccinated.
Public health actions have consequences, always.
There are still 50,000-70,000 documented Covid deaths per week. As public health measures are dismantled and as immunity against the virus wanes in both vaccinated populations and those with other immunity, our vulnerabilities increase.
Already, cases have increased sharply over the past two weeks in Europe and Asia, where an even more infectiousness sub-lineage of Omicron called BA.2 has become dominant. Many hospitals are overwhelmed.
The alarming upward trend of new Covid infections may continue and accelerate.
As public health measures are dismantled, we are all vulnerable. As surveillance declines, we may not be alerted to the circulation of more deadly Covid variants, which could elude all existing vaccines, until it is too late for many of us.
We, as WHO Special Envoys, call on the world to end the pandemic phase by adjusting our policies gradually and based on science. We implore those who can make a difference, and that means everyone, whether on a decision-making, societal or individual level – to act now, before the situation explodes.
It is tempting to take our eyes off the ball. Every country has competing priorities and demands. All are feeling economic strains.
But COVID is still here. Everything that was true of the virus in the early part of the pandemic remains true today. It is still deadly. It is still circulating. It can still produce new variants. Dismantling the protections built over the past two years risks greater disaster.
A less deadly future is in our hands, so let us exercise our power to achieve it, together.
- Professor Dr. Maha El Rabbat, former Minister of Health and Population of Egypt;
- Dr. David Nabarro, former Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change;
- Dr. Mirta Roses, former Director of the WHO Region of the Americas;
- Dr Palitha Abeykoon, former Director, Health Systems Development, WHO South-East Asia Regional Office, Senior Advisor Sri Lankan Ministry of Health
- Professor Samba Sow Director-General of the Center for Vaccine Development in Mali;