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Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in December 2022. Last week, Dr. Tedros announced COVID-19 is no longer considered a global health emergency.DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

“With great hope, I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared last week.

In the next breath, he stressed that this doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.

SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, emerged in late 2019. A global public health emergency was declared on Jan. 30, 2020, when only 170 people worldwide had died.

Why? Because there was potential for disaster. And it came to pass in ways that no one imagined, such as the wealthiest country on Earth, the United States, recording 1.1 million deaths as of May, 2022, and embracing denialism.

To date, there have been close to 7 million deaths officially recorded worldwide, though the real number is likely two to three times higher.

COVID-19 is still killing about 4,000 people a week worldwide (down from a peak of 100,000 at the height of the pandemic) and sickening who knows how many more. The wily virus continues to mutate and spit out new variants.

It hasn’t finished ripping a global trail of social, economic and political destruction.

“COVID-19 has left – and continues to leave – deep scars on our world,” Dr. Tedros said.

Symbolically at least, the pandemic is over. Most people and governments have moved on. But nobody’s celebrating. There won’t be a tickertape parade to celebrate COVID’s demise – because it lingers. The beginning of the end is more of a moment of exhausted relief than triumph.

So, what now?

First, we have to find a level of peaceful co-existence with the virus, as we have done with many pathogens before it. Put another way: how many COVID-19 deaths are we willing to accept as “normal?”

Right now, that “tolerable” number seems to be hovering around 200,000 a year globally. Not negligible, but that number is lower than deaths from tuberculosis, AIDS, measles, influenza and many other infectious diseases. (In Canada, we still have about 80 COVID-19 deaths weekly, roughly the same number of people who die in motor vehicle crashes, or by suicide.)

Secondly, we need to heal the scars, and staunch the bleeding from the not-yet-healed wounds.

In Canada, the health system is reeling from the pandemic. There are still around 3,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital, about 160 of them in critical condition. That’s a far cry from the days when the pandemic overwhelmed hospitals, but it’s still a significant burden.

Most people have acquired good levels of immunity, from a combination of vaccination and infection. Practically, that means we are unlikely to see waves of COVID-19; instead, we will see isolated outbreaks and a steady number of cases. The many thousands left wounded by long COVID still need care.

COVID-19 was much more than a health crisis. It triggered economic upheaval, in large part because our response was too slow and too timid, which allowed the virus to spread rapidly, prolonging the pandemic.

As Dr. Tedros said: “One of the greatest tragedies of COVID-19 is that it didn’t have to be this way.”

COVID-19 exacerbated political fault lines within and between countries. Politics trumped public health.

The responses of public health officials and governments were often polarizing, seen simultaneously as too little or too much, too late or too soon – and that eroded trust. All of this was made worse by a torrent of misinformation and disinformation.

So politicized has COVID-19 become that it’s almost impossible to have a rational discussion about mitigation measures, from vaccines to masks, or their benefits and limitations.

The end of the emergency phase, then, should prompt some reflection on our successes and failures.

Developing vaccines in less than a year was an unparalleled scientific achievement; getting 13.3 billion doses into people (including 98 million in Canada), was just as impressive.

There were failures as well: The messaging on masking was terrible, especially at the outset of the pandemic. We were too slow to acknowledge airborne transmission of the virus, and even slower to respond to the threat of disinformation.

At some point, there will have to be reckonings, too, especially for the massacre of neglect that occurred in long-term care homes.

But most of all, we have to ensure we will do better when the next pandemic comes along, because an improved performance isn’t a given.

As Dr. Tedros said, we had the tools and technologies to prepare, detect, respond, and mitigate the harm of this pandemic. We didn’t use them properly and, as a result, lives were lost unnecessarily.

“We must promise ourselves and our children and grandchildren that we will never make those mistakes again.”

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