(Geneva) The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Friday that COVID-19 was no longer considered an international emergency, marking the symbolic end of the devastating pandemic that has triggered once unthinkable lockdowns, upended economies around the world and killed at least 7 million people worldwide.

The WHO has said that while the emergency phase is over, the pandemic is not, noting recent spikes in cases in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The UN health agency says thousands of people are still dying from the virus every week.

“It is with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as an international health emergency,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“This does not mean that COVID-19 is over as a threat to global health,” he qualified, however, adding that he would not hesitate to convene experts again to reassess the situation if the disease “put our world in jeopardy”.

Mr. Tedros said the pandemic has been on a downward trend for more than a year, acknowledging that most countries have already returned to their former lives. He lamented the damage that COVID-19 has caused to the global community: the virus has destroyed businesses and pushed millions into poverty, he recalled.

“COVID changed our world and it changed us,” he said, warning that the risk of new variants remained.

When the United Nations health agency first declared the coronavirus an international crisis on January 30, 2020, the disease was not yet called COVID-19, and there was no major outbreak. beyond China.

In the United States, the public health emergency declaration for COVID-19 is set to expire on May 11, when broad measures to support the pandemic response, including vaccination requirements, end. Many other countries, including Germany, France and the UK dropped many of their pandemic provisions last year.

When Mr. Tedros declared COVID-19 an emergency in 2020, he said his biggest fear was the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weak health systems, which he called “ill-prepared.” “.

In fact, some of the countries that have suffered the worst deaths from COVID-19 were previously judged to be the best prepared for a pandemic, including the United States and the United Kingdom. According to WHO data, the number of reported deaths in Africa is only 3% of the global total.

The WHO made its decision to lower its highest alert level on Friday, after convening a panel of experts on Thursday. The UN agency does not “declare” pandemics, but first used the term to describe the outbreak in March 2020, when the virus spread to every continent except Antarctica.

The WHO is the sole agency mandated to coordinate the global response to acute health threats, but the organization has repeatedly faltered as the crisis has unfolded. In January 2020, the WHO publicly applauded China for its supposedly quick and transparent response, although recordings of private meetings obtained by The Associated Press showed senior officials frustrated by the country’s lack of cooperation. .

Many scientists have also criticized the WHO’s reluctance to acknowledge that COVID-19 is frequently spread through the air and by people without symptoms, lamenting the agency’s lack of strong guidelines to prevent such exposure.