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Covid-19 still a serious health threat, experts remind public after WHO concluded emergency end

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, May 10 — For three years, the Covid-19 virus shook the whole world, uprooting everyone from their normal routine.

Not only standard operating procedures (SOPs) at workplaces were changed to adapt to the virus that was spreading fast, it also came to a point where getting groceries at the market, greeting a neighbour or even walking the dog became an almost impossible task.

The recent announcement made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded the end of the Covid-19 pandemic’s emergency status, however, it does not mean that the virus has been eliminated once and for all.

Is Covid-19 still a threat?

The answer is yes. According to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, although the Covid-19 emergency is over, that does not mean it is over as a global health threat.

In a statement issued on May 5, Tedros said Covid-19 is still claiming at least one life every three minutes as of April, and those were just the deaths that the WHO know about.

"This virus is here to stay. It is still killing, and it’s still changing. The risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths.

"The worst thing any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard, to dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that Covid-19 is nothing to worry about.

"What this news means is that it is time for countries to transition from emergency mode to managing Covid-19 alongside other infectious diseases,” Tedros said in the statement.

Masking is still necessary

Universiti Putra Malaysia virologist Dr Chee Hui Yee has also warned that the pandemic is not over.

"Everyone need to be clear that the pandemic is still not over. The end of public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) means that the Covid-19 is no longer as ‘serious, sudden, unusual, or unexpected’ situation that may require immediate international action.

"We still need to stay vigilant to protect ourselves and our loved ones with the necessary precaution.

"Wear mask as and when needed especially in a confined and crowded place. For outdoor activities, it is still advisable to wear mask [and] of course, there are many big events being organised with huge crowd yet no mask mandatory [but] individuals have a responsibility to take care of themselves,” Dr Chee told Malay Mail when contacted.

Azrul Mohd Khalib, who is the head of Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy emphasised similar for face masks.

"We need to continue to practice wearing masks in crowded, poorly ventilated and closed spaces,” he said when contacted.

What about vaccination?

Vaccination is still important, and for those who belong to high risk groups, should still get their jabs, Dr Chee said.

"Get vaccinated if you are in the high risk group,” she said.

"Those who have not received their booster jabs should get them, especially if you are older and suffering from a pre-existing condition,” Azrul also added.

He also reminded that thousands of people infected with the disease are still in intensive care units, fighting for their lives.

"There are millions, including in Malaysia, who are living with the debilitating effects of post-Covid conditions.

"New variants continue to emerge (while) vaccines have not reached most populations in many countries. The threat remains real and current,” Azrul said.

The WHO, in-line with its announcement on the pandemic status has also issued temporary recommendations for vaccination whereby it said States Parties should integrate Covid-19 vaccination into life course vaccination programmes.

It had recommended that States Parties should maintain efforts to increase Covid-19 vaccination coverage for all people in the high-priority groups (as defined by the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunisation Roadmap of April 2023) with WHO recommended vaccines and continue to actively address vaccine acceptance and demand issues with communities.

Test and report

What happens now if symptoms are encountered?

Dr Chee said isolation should be done immediately as before.

"Get tested if you have symptoms and isolate yourself immediately if tested SARS-CoV-2 positive and not running around,” she said.

In this area, Azrul said the WHO announcement should not be used as a reason to reduce resources in disease outbreak preparedness and response, or to no longer practice measures intended to keep the people protected or less vulnerable to infection.

"In Malaysia, hospitalised patients are still being admitted to intensive care for ventilation. Even though the numbers are mercifully lower today, there are people still dying of Covid-19.

"Constant vigilance should be a way of life for all of us. We use this time to prepare for the next surge of Covid-19 or an entirely new pandemic altogether,” Azrul said.

What about travelling?

The WHO has advised that States Parties should continue to lift Covid-19 international travel related health measures, based on risk assessments, and to not require any proof of vaccination against Covid-19 as a prerequisite for international travel.

As it had said in its earlier travel advisories, blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.

For travellers arriving in Malaysia as of September 28, 2022, wearing masks on board is no longer mandatory but is optional.

However, local airline companies highly recommend wearing the mask for travellers with symptoms such as fever, cough, and cold; high risk such as the elderly, people with chronic diseases, with low immunity, and pregnant mothers; and those who are traveling with high-risk people such as the elderly and children.

For travellers departing the country, it is best to check with the local airline companies on latest update on Covid-19 for respective destinations.

To be absolutely sure of latest updates, airline companies have advised that travellers consult the local embassies of the particular destination.