The announcement, made more than three years after WHO declared the coronavirus an international crisis, offers some relief, if not an ending, to a pandemic that stirred fear and suspicion, hand-wringing and finger-pointing across the globe.
In the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) reacted to the news by saying it will reevaluate and reassess existing health protocols and guidelines in the country.
In Cebu, Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia and Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama on Saturday, May 6, hailed the announcement, saying the province will now be more open to tourism, investment and business opportunities, as they also brought up their pioneering but controversial moves to drop Covid-19 restrictions earlier than the national government did.
The United Nations’ (UN) health agency’s officials said that even though the emergency phase was over, the pandemic hasn’t finished, noting recent spikes in cases in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
WHO says thousands of people are still dying from the virus every week, and millions of others are suffering from debilitating, long-term effects.
“It’s with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“That does not mean Covid-19 is over as a global health threat,” he said, warning that new variants could yet emerge. Tedros noted that while the official Covid-19 death toll was seven million, the real figure was estimated to be at least 20 million.
Tedros said the pandemic had been on a downward trend for more than a year, acknowledging that most countries have already returned to life before Covid-19.
He bemoaned the damage that Covid-19 had done to the global community, saying the pandemic had shattered businesses, exacerbated political divisions, led to the spread of misinformation and plunged millions into poverty.
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said it was incumbent on heads of states and other leaders to negotiate a wide-ranging pandemic treaty to decide how future health threats should be faced.
Ryan said some of the scenes witnessed during Covid-19, when people resorted to “bartering for oxygen canisters,” fought to get into emergency rooms and died in parking lots because they couldn’t get treated, must never be repeated.
When the UN health agency first declared the coronavirus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30, 2020, there were no major outbreaks beyond China.
More than three years later, the virus has caused an estimated 764 million cases globally and about five billion people have received at least one dose of vaccine.
After a weeks-long visit to China, WHO released a report in 2021 concluding that Covid-19 most likely jumped into humans from animals, dismissing the possibility that it originated in a lab as “extremely unlikely.”
But the UN agency backtracked the following year, saying “key pieces of data” were still missing and it was premature to rule out that Covid-19 might have ties to a lab.
In a brief statement hours after the WHO’s announcement, the DOH said it will meet with the other members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases to “discuss and reassess policies and other guidelines affected by the declaration.”
“The DOH guarantees the Filipino people that all factors in determining our next action in line with the WHO’s proclamation will be considered and discussed for the approval of the President,” it said.
According to the DOH, the end of the global emergency status is a result of the massive international effort to combat the pandemic.
“This is an acknowledgement of our effective and collaborative Covid-19 response and concerted efforts to fully recover and reopen our economy,” said the DOH.
In Cebu, Governor Garcia called the WHO announcement good news for Cebuanos, as this signifies the end of strict restrictions and policies against the viral disease.
Garcia sees the easing of restrictions as leading to increased tourism and economic growth for the country and Cebu province in particular.
She added that there is no longer a need to impose stricter laws and regulations in an effort to implement the minimal public health standards against Covid-19.
“In here, the mask is optional, but it is mandatory for those who have an unseemly face,” Garcia joked with the reporters.
The province of Cebu has been a pioneer in the nation in easing restrictions against the highly contagious and fatal disease in an effort to balance the social and economic impacts of the pandemic on the Cebuanos, Garcia told the reporters during the Go Negosyo Tourism Summit 2023 at SM Seaside City Cebu on May 6.
This has brought criticism and disapproval from the health community and experts and those in the national government for the last few years, the governor added.
“We took matters into our own hands, and I’ve decided, whatever my decision will be, I’ll be the one to blame. And I always look into what can be the best for my people,” Garcia said.
The governor clashed with the national government when she eased quarantine rules for returning Filipinos in March 2021 and when she made mask wearing outdoors optional in June 2022.
Mayor Rama also welcomed the WHO announcement; however, he told reporters at the same event that vaccination against Covid-19 will continue.
“It is good for tourism. It is good for Cebu. It is good for Pasigarbo and Sinulog,” Rama said, referring to the annual festivals of Cebu Province and Cebu City held in August and January, respectively.
Rama also sees the announcement as a catalyst for the return of tourism to Cebu.
He added that Covid-19 restrictions in Cebu City had already been eased last year, a move Rama attributed to the unified approach under the “One Cebu” policy that espouses that all local government units, including those not under the governor, in Cebu have a uniform approach to managing the disease.
It was on Feb. 24, 2022 when Rama declared “Oplan Kagawasan” (Operation Freedom) lifting the curfew on adults and allowing all establishments in the city to reopen and unvaccinated persons, whether workers or customers, to enter buildings, regardless of age.
This, despite the city still being classified under Alert Level 2, where restrictions were still in place in regard to the establishments allowed to operate and the persons allowed to enter indoor venues.
Rama also defied the national policy on masking last August.
As of May 3, 2023, there have been 765,222,932 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including 6,921,614 deaths, globally.
In the Philippines, a total of 4,099,088 cases have been recorded, including 66,444 deaths, as of May 5. (AP, HDT, EHP, CTL)