WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing – 5 May 2023

WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing – 5 May 2023

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Grebreyesus – Director General, World Health Organization. (WHO File Photo Library)

One thousand two hundred and twenty-one days ago, WHO learned of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China.

On the 30th of January 2020, on the advice of an Emergency Committee convened under the International Health Regulations, I declared a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of COVID-19 – the highest level of alarm under international law.

At that time, outside China, there were fewer than 100 reported cases and no reported deaths.

In the three years since then, COVID-19 has turned our world upside down.

Almost 7 million deaths have been reported to WHO, but we know the toll is several times higher – at least 20 million.

Health systems have been severely disrupted, with millions of people missing out on essential health services, including lifesaving vaccinations for children.

But COVID-19 has been so much more than a health crisis.

It has caused severe economic upheaval, erasing trillions from GDP, disrupting travel and trade, shuttering businesses, and plunging millions into poverty.

It has caused severe social upheaval, with borders closed, movement restricted, schools shut and millions of people experiencing loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and depression.

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated political fault lines, within and between nations. It has eroded trust between people, governments, and institutions, fuelled by a torrent of mis- and disinformation.

And it has laid bare the searing inequalities of our world, with the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest hit, and the last to receive access to vaccines and other tools.

For more than a year, the pandemic has been on a downward trend, with population immunity increasing from vaccination and infection, mortality decreasing and the pressure on health systems easing.

This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19.

For the past year, the Emergency Committee – and WHO – have been analyzing the data carefully and considering when the time would be right to lower the level of alarm.

Yesterday, the Emergency Committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern. I have accepted that advice.

It is therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency.

However, that does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat.

Last week, COVID-19 claimed a life every three minutes – and that’s just the deaths we know about.

As we speak, thousands of people around the world are fighting for their lives in intensive care units.

And millions more continue to live with the debilitating effects of post-COVID-19 conditions.

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, dismantle the systems it has built, or 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.

I emphasize that this is not a snap decision. It is a decision that has been considered carefully for some time, planned for, and made on the basis of a careful analysis of the data.

If need be, I will not hesitate to convene another Emergency Committee should COVID-19 once again put our world in peril.

While this Emergency Committee will now cease its work, it has sent a clear message that countries must not cease theirs.

On the Committee’s advice, I have decided to use a provision in the International Health Regulations that has never been used before, to establish a Review Committee to develop long-term, standing recommendations for countries on how to manage COVID-19 on an ongoing basis.

In addition, WHO this week published the fourth edition of the Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19, which outlines critical actions for countries in five core areas: collaborative surveillance, community protection, safe and scalable care, access to countermeasures, and emergency coordination.


For more than three years, the experts on the Emergency Committee have devoted their time, their experience, and their expertise, not just to advise me on whether COVID-19 continues to represent a global health emergency, but to also advise on recommendations for countries.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to all the members of the Emergency Committee for their thoughtful consideration and wise advice.

I thank especially Professor Didier Houssin for his leadership as Chair over the past three years. He has led the committee with a calm demeanor and a steady hand through turbulent times.

I also wish to thank the incredible people who I have the privilege to call my colleagues.

For more than three years, the people of WHO have labored day and night, under intense pressure and intense scrutiny.

They have brought together partners and experts from around the world to generate evidence, study, and translate it into guidance and actions in the world.

In countries around the world, WHO has worked closely with governments to translate that guidance into policies and actions to save lives.

My colleagues have worked tirelessly to get vaccines and other supplies to more people faster.

And they have countered mis- and disinformation with accurate and reliable information.

I do not have the words to express my gratitude to everyone around the world, who like me, is proud to be WHO.

At one level, this is a moment for celebration.

We have arrived at this moment thanks to the incredible skill and selfless dedication of health and care workers;

The innovation of vaccine researchers and developers;

The tough decisions governments have had to make in the face of changing evidence;

And the sacrifices that all of us have made as individuals, families, and communities to keep ourselves and each other safe.

At another level, this is a moment for reflection.

COVID-19 has left – and continues to leave – deep scars on our world.

Those scars must serve as a permanent reminder of the potential for new viruses to emerge, with devastating consequences.

As a global community, the suffering we have endured, the painful lessons we have learned, the investments we have made and the capacities we have built must not go to waste.

We owe it to those we have lost to leverage those investments; build on those capacities; learn those lessons, and transform that suffering into meaningful and lasting change.

One of the greatest tragedies of COVID-19 is that it didn’t have to be this way.

We have the tools and the technologies to prepare for pandemics better, to detect them earlier, to respond to them faster, and to mitigate their impact.

But globally, a lack of coordination, a lack of equity, and a lack of solidarity meant that those tools were not used as effectively as they could have been. Lives were lost that should not have been.

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

That’s what the pandemic accord and the amendments to the International Health Regulations that countries are now negotiating are about – a commitment to future generations that we will not go back to the old cycle of panic and neglect that left our world vulnerable, but move forward with a shared commitment to meet shared threats with a shared responsibility.

In 1948, the nations of the world came together in the aftermath of the bloodiest war in history to commit to working together for a healthier world, recognizing that diseases have no regard for the lines humans draw on maps.

They forged an agreement – a treaty: the Constitution of the World Health Organization.

Three-quarters of a century later, nations are once again coming together to forge an agreement to ensure we never repeat the same mistakes again.

If we don’t make these changes, then who will?

This is the right generation to make those changes.

And if we don’t make them now, then when?

Like countries, communities, and public health institutions around the world, WHO has learned an enormous amount from this pandemic.

COVID has changed our world, and it has changed us.

That’s the way it should be. If we all go back to how things were before COVID-19, we will have failed to learn our lessons, and we will have failed future generations.

This experience must change us all for the better. It must make us more determined to fulfill the vision that nations had when they founded WHO in 1948: the highest possible standard of health for all people. ### (PR)

Source: World Health Organization (WHO)