The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency of international concern (Pheic). This declaration marks the end of the emergency response period that began in January 2020. The WHO has also unveiled a new strategy to transition from an emergency response to longer-term sustained COVID-19 disease management.
What Does This Mean?
COVID-19 will continue to have pandemic status. Countries will still have their own authority to determine whether to treat COVID-19 as an emergency within their territories. Some countries, including the US, have already declared an end to the national emergency. While this may not change much practically, it is an event of monumental importance for the global public health community.
Public Perception of COVID-19
For many people, COVID-19 is no longer viewed as an emergency. In the UK, COVID-19 no longer features in the regular Office for National Statistics public opinion survey that asks people what they think the key issues facing the country are. Even a year ago, only two in five Britons were worried about COVID-19, according to the survey.
Behavioral Changes During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us how adaptive behavior can be, in particular, how much people were willing to change their behavior to keep themselves and others safe. However, it turns out that for most people, the pandemic has not permanently changed their behavior and habits or created a “new normal.” Face mask use has consistently declined, and social distancing has long since disappeared, except for a relatively small proportion of the public.
The pandemic has also demonstrated how important social connections and social, especially physical, contact can be. According to the social safety theory, COVID-19 posed a threat to the “social fabric that makes humans resilient and keeps us alive and well.” Life satisfaction and happiness were lowest during lockdowns, and recovered as people started to mix socially again.
As we move into the next phase, we need to consider what we’ve learned about human behavior during the pandemic. We need to move from relying on the resilience of individuals to building resilience in our institutions. Systematically tackling misinformation, improving ventilation in schools, workplaces, and other public indoor spaces, and making longer-term improvements to paid sick leave are all good ways to start building more resilient societies in preparation for the next pandemic.
Although COVID-19 is no longer a Pheic, it is still responsible for millions of infections and thousands of deaths each week around the world. Hundreds of millions of people are in need of longer-term care due to long COVID. Responsibility for preventing public health emergencies should not rest solely in the hands of the public; actions that governments, employers, and health authorities can take now could protect against future public health emergencies.