Friday, March 11, 2022
We are an impatient species. In the early months of 2020, news sources speculated repeatedly about when WHO would finally declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Journalists began to write about the 1918 flu pandemic and to speculate about how a pandemic would affect the economy. As late as February 24, 2020, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hesitated to label the outbreak a “pandemic” with all its fearful connotations.
Two weeks later, on March 11, 2020, the WHO did declare the global outbreak a pandemic, the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. “The number of cases of COVID-19 outside of China has increased 13-fold,” Tedros explained. “There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives.”
This week the pandemic death toll surpassed 6 million lives. No country in the world is left untouched. At the same time, we have seen much progress in the last two years, including a better understanding of the virus and how it spreads and how it affects the body. We’ve developed vaccines, therapeutics, and shared genomic sequencing to identify variants of concern. Today, many countries have reduced their cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to the point where they can lift restrictions and begin living as normally in almost a post-COVID environment. We hear the word “endemic” a lot and we feel like it’s over. Looking at COVID locally, this feeling is only natural.
But the job of the World Health Organization is to look at the pandemic globally. That is what the word “pandemic” means–it’s not under control and it’s everywhere. That is why there is a WHO committee called The COVID-19 IHR Emergency Committee which meets every three months to review progress and make recommendations on the global surveillance, research, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Committee first met on Jan. 23, 2020, to provide an international forum for coordination of surveillance, research, and responses to the spread of COVID-19. Its concerns include tracking variants, organizing international distribution of vaccines and testing, research on vaccination strategies and the mitigation of severe outcomes. Their newest area of investigation is the transmission of the SARS-Co-V-2 virus between animals and humans. While each country, state, county, and city responds differently to the changing dynamics of the virus within its own borders, there is still a need for international communication and coordination to maintain and expand the control we have gained so far.
Otherwise, we risk continuing the cycle of variants and outbreaks we have seen over the last two years. No matter how safe we feel locally, we are subject to the emergence of variants which resist the vaccines and therapeutics we depend on, or which cause a more severe disease.
One of the most concerning challenges in controlling the pandemic today is the widespread presence of armed conflict throughout the world.
A country at war cannot give priority to fighting disease. Moreover, war displaces people. More than two million refugees have fled Ukraine. Among countries currently involved in civil wars are: Afghanistan, Columbia, Ethiopia, Libya, Myanmar, and Syria. Many other countries are torn by terrorist insurgencies, ethnic violence, and drug wars.
It might be time to remember that the 1918 flu epidemic, which started locally and spread globally through war, killed over 50 million people, more than any other disease in recorded history.
The end of the pandemic may not depend on world peace. But it does depend on recognizing the risks of war and the importance of global public health measures to control the spread of COVID-19 until it does indeed become endemic everywhere.
Today’s Notable Headlines
“Why Is The WHO Not Calling The Coronavirus A Pandemic?” NPR, February 25, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/25/809182758/why-is-the-who-not-calling-the-coronavirus-a-pandemic
“Global COVID-19 Death Toll Surpasses 6 Million,” WebMD Newsbrief, March 7, 2022. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20220307/global-covid-deaths-top-6-million
“HOW DID THIS MANY DEATHS BECOME NORMAL?,” The Atlantic, March 8, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/03/covid-us-death-rate/626972/
“When is a pandemic ‘over’?” Science, Mar. 4, 2022. https://www.science.org/content/article/when-pandemic-over
“WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” WHO, March 11, 2020. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020
“Statement on the first meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV),” WHO, Jan. 23, 2020. https://www.who.int/news/item/23-01-2020-statement-on-the-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)
“Statement on the tenth meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic,” WHO, Jan. 19, 2022. https://www.who.int/news/item/19-01-2022-statement-on-the-tenth-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-19)-pandemic
“The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918,” National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/
Why am I doing this?
The coronavirus pandemic will be written on our memories just as the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, or the Cold War left their mark on past generations. Since March 11, 2020, this blog has examined the modern pandemic experience both in the media and in everyday life, drawing on my experience as a medical technologist, a historian, and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis.