Exactly one year ago, during a packed press conference that today would seem impossible, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic.
Some say that statement came too late, easing the chaos and hardships that would follow throughout the following year, with half of humanity under the virus’ restrictions just a month later.
“At the beginning of January we knew it was a pandemic and many of us were saying it publicly,” says Michael Mina, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health.
“By the time we saw the virus spreading throughout East Asia, Southeast Asia, and even the Middle East, all within weeks of its discovery, we should have declared it a pandemic virus. We didn’t; the world did not and for me that was the beginning of inaction in response, “he added.
When COVID was declared a pandemic last March, there were more than 118,000 confirmed cases of the virus in 114 countries and more than 4,000 deaths. Many European countries were closed that same week due to the increase in hospitalizations.
Exactly one year later, there are more than 117 million cases and 2.6 million deaths worldwide, representing a 99,000% increase in the number of infections.
However, the declaration of March 11, 2020 was made without fanfare – in perspective, less than necessary – and the WHO director-general warned against the use of the term “pandemic.”
“Pandemic is not a word to be used lightly or carelessly,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, defending his appeal because cases had increased 13-fold in two weeks and the number of affected countries had tripled. “It is a word that if misused can cause irrational fear or unwarranted acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”
Now, many experts agree that this is probably the worst pandemic in a century, as it is disrupting the lives of people around the world and is already being compared to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, responsible for tens of millions of deaths. .
Some experts have denounced a global complacency to address COVID-19 as a pandemic from the start.
What is a pandemic?
It is considered a pandemic when the spread of a new disease occurs globally or there is a risk that a new disease will spread globally. According to the WHO, previous pandemics have often been caused by animal flu viruses.
The first pandemic of the 21st century was the H1N1 flu between 2009 and 2010. It is estimated that the virus caused between 100,000 and 400,000 deaths in the first year, according to the WHO.
The worst pandemic of the 20th century, meanwhile, was the Spanish flu of 1918, which is estimated to have killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is the first coronavirus to cause a pandemic.
Countries ignored WHO’s declaration of a global health emergency
The WHO declared the pandemic more than a month after declaring COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020. At that time, there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths outside of China, according to WHO.
Many experts have claimed that the first errors worldwide, such as the lack of PCR tests and the lack of protective equipment for doctors, contributed to the rapid spread of the virus in several countries during the month of February.
COVID-19 was the sixth epidemic declared a PHEIC or health emergency of global concern according to the 2005 International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization.
Previous PHEICs include H1N1, wild-type polio, Ebola (in 2014 and 2019), and the Zika virus.
“The declaration of pandemic is not part of the architecture of the WHO, it does not have a legal meaning like that of a PHEIC [emergencia sanitaria mundial]”said Clare Wenham, associate professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics.
So the pandemic declaration was probably a “use of language to try to encourage governments to take the threat seriously because PHEIC had not been as effective as expected.”
A PHEIC is the highest level of alarm under international law, according to WHO, and was agreed as such by member states for this to trigger collective action.
In fact, Dr. Tedros said in March, declaring the pandemic, that WHO officials were alarmed by the level of “inaction” by governments to stop the spread of COVID-19, and continued to insist that it was still It is possible to slow the spread of the virus by testing, tracing, and isolating cases.
Experts have criticized governments for their lack of preparedness and reaction following the WHO declaration of COVID-19 as a global health emergency.
Did the pandemic declaration come too late?
Mina said she spoke with major testing companies in early 2020 and they told her they were not sure about mass producing COVID-19 tests.
“If the WHO had said in January that this was obviously a pandemic, by definition already, that would have given companies a couple [de] months headway to start building your testing infrastructure, “he said in response to Euronews at a Harvard press conference.
The WHO has also been criticized for declaring the global health emergency late: A WHO committee met on January 22 and decided not to declare a PHEIC, but then reversed that decision just a week later as the situation quickly evolved.
“The PHEIC is designed to be a normative wake-up call and get governments to wake up to risk and start preparing,” Wenham said.
“For many reasons, this did not happen as expected in early 2020,” he said, citing governments that did not take the risk seriously and the waning power of the WHO as some reasons.
But he added that comprehensive data is currently needed on whether governments took action following WHO’s health emergency declarations.
On Monday, WHO emergency director Dr. Mike Ryan said “we may have to scream louder, but maybe some people need hearing aids.”
Some say the slow statement did nothing more than foreshadow the missteps that would define COVID-19 responses.
There are major consequences if you don’t look at what’s written on the wall, if you don’t take a fact-based approach, and if you don’t say, “This is a pandemic, let’s make it known to the world,” says Mina. “We’re seeing the remnants of that kind of thinking continue today.”
Mina is currently investigating rapid tests and says she does not understand why authorities are reluctant to let people take tests at home without a prescription.
“A year into this pandemic, after everything we’ve seen, we are still talking about whether people need a prescription from a doctor to get tested for COVID … it seems scary to me right now,” Mina said.
He stated that the examination of the first days reveals “our inability to really measure up to government agencies and policy makers to deal with this virus in the necessary way.”