What it means for the COVID-19 pandemic to be 'over'

Dr. Joseph Varon, wearing rubber gloves, a visor, mask and blue plastic scrubs, hugs a patient.
Dr. Joseph Varon comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit on Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center on Nov. 26, 2020 in Houston. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Friday’s declaration by the World Health Organization that the coronavirus emergency was “over” marked the end of a three-year journey that saw the world transformed by a pandemic that killed at least 7 million people and rattled many assumptions about what life would look like in the 21st century.

That unwelcome journey began on Jan. 30, 2020, when Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, declared that the novel coronavirus was a serious enough threat to merit a worldwide public health emergency.

At the time, there had been 170 confirmed deaths in China, where the virus had originated sometime in late 2019, but Tedros said he expected that things would get worse.

“All countries should be prepared for containment,” he said.

The virus swept from China to Iran to Italy. The United States braced for impact, hoping to somehow avoid the blow. Twenty-one people on the Grand Princess cruise ship became ill. Trump said he was glad that the passengers would remain quarantined off the coast of Northern California.

Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference.
World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addresses a press conference on the organization's 75th anniversary in Geneva on April 6. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

“I like the numbers being where they are,” he said during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta on March 7. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship."

But the virus was relentless, thriving on a globalized world of easy travel, dotted with crowded cities criss-crossed with commercial aviation routes. If illness was metaphor, then the coronavirus was an all-too-apt one for a hot and crowded planet.

On March 11, Tedros declared that the coronavirus was a pandemic. The United States went into lockdown. Europe followed suit, and the seeming entirety of human civilization ground to a halt. Great cities emptied, the rich fleeing to country homes, the tourists gone. Airplanes sat empty. Restaurants passed take-out orders through plastic screens. People sanitized and scrubbed. Hand-washing videos went viral.

At the time, the Trump administration implemented what it called a “15 Days to Slow the Spread” strategy. The infection rate curve would be flattened, health experts assured the public. In time, herd immunity would prevail.

After several weeks of taking the virus seriously, Trump grew impatient. The pandemic would be over and done with by Easter, he predicted. Governors in some Republican states rushed to reopen restaurants and other institutions.

President Donald Trump, wearing a wry smile, and with Vice President Mike Pence at his side, holds up a sheaf of papers.
Then-President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a new conference with members of his coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence, at the White House on Feb. 26, 2020. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

It would be three years of masks, swabs and shots before the coronavirus went into global abeyance. The availability of vaccines, combined with the protection gained by prior infection, simply gave the virus fewer and fewer opportunities to spread.

Much of the country remained cautious well into 2021, especially in states and cities controlled by Democrats. But then they, too, became impatient, especially after the widespread availability of vaccines greatly reduced the risk of death and serious illness. And as the surprising Republican victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election helped illustrate, discontent with pandemic restrictions could exact a steep political toll.

After the worst of the Omicron wave passed in January 2022, restrictions gradually fell away, never to return in most places. Others were challenged in court, as with the Biden administration’s masking requirement for travelers and vaccine mandate for corporations. The last of 2020’s "we-are-in-this-together" spirit dissipated, revealing a nation as intensely polarized as ever.

Yet when Tedros briefed the media on Friday, it was to largely to acknowledge what had become obvious: “With great hope,” he declared, “I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” adding that it was “time to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Customers, some in masks, look at a mobile phone as they wait outside a restaurant for a table in a busy retail shopping area on April 18, 2023 in Beijing, China. Chinas Chinas National Bureau of Statistics reported 4.5  percent GDP growth in the first quarter of 2023 over a year ago, as the worlds second largest economy showed signs of growth after ending three years of strict zero Covid measures earlier this year. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
A couple look at a mobile phone as they wait outside a restaurant for a table in a busy retail shopping area on April 18 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

His announcement was symbolic. Exactly when a virus becomes endemic, settling into a predictable pattern, is a matter of epidemiological debate that Tedros did not attempt to resolve. And he pointed out that the virus continues to kill and sicken thousands of people daily across the world. “This virus is here to stay. It is still killing, and it's still changing," Tedros said.

Most people now seem willing to live with that reality. Even China, long the most cautious of countries, put aside its onerous “zero-COVID” policy after public frustration with lockdowns and incessant testing exploded into public protests late last year.

In the U.S., the public health and national emergencies are also coming to an end. Vaccination requirements for federal workers and travelers will fall away next week. President Biden now travels frequently and hosts large gatherings in the White House, where masking has become increasingly rare.

On Friday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky, whom Republicans often criticized for her unwavering support of vaccines and masks, announced that she was stepping down from the agency. The CDC’s coronavirus tracking dashboard is being scaled back, too, now that most people do not check infection rates before making weekend plans.

Malik Jaffer, lead nurse, in blue nitrile gloves, prepares a syringe.
Malik Jaffer, lead nurse, gets ready to administer a COVID vaccine at the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, site of the Ward 4 DC Covid Center, in Washington, D.C. on March 31, which was soon to shut down. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Yet many Americans still remain cautious, masking even when outside, continuing to test at the slightest hint of illness and avoiding large indoor gatherings. Though they are a dwindling minority, they believe that Americans too easily forsook the vulnerable — the elderly, people with weak immune systems — because they wanted to pack into restaurants and sports arenas again.

The end of the WHO emergency may embolden those who say that whatever vestiges of pandemic life remain — in many institutions, for example, largely useless plastic screens remain in place — should be done away with.

A latent desire persists to return to the world as it was in 2019, before anyone had ever thought of hoarding KN-95 face masks.

That world, however, is gone.