WHO official: It is "unrealistic" to expect pandemic to be over by end of 2021

An official from the leading global public health agency expressed fear that the pandemic might not end this year

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 3, 2021 4:59AM (EST)

Planet Earth with Coronavirus and Trees (Getty Images)
Planet Earth with Coronavirus and Trees (Getty Images)

A senior official at the World Health Organization (WHO) believes that the world should not assume that the COVID-19 pandemic will be over by the end of 2021.

It is "premature" and "unrealistic" to believe that the pandemic will be a thing of the past by Dec. 31, director of WHO emergencies program director Dr. Michael Ryan told reporters on Monday. "If we're smart, we can finish with the hospitalizations and the deaths and the tragedy associated with this pandemic" by the end of 2021, Dr. Ryan explained to the journalists at the media briefing.

Although Ryan said that the pandemic could wind down if vaccines manage to reduce transmission as well as the number of deaths and hospitalizations, he stated that "right now, the virus is very much in control."

At the time of this writing there have been more than 114 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 throughout the world, including more than 28 million in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center — about 1.4% of the human population. More than 2.5 million have died of COVID-19, including more than 500,000 in the United States.

A specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for global public health, WHO became a center of controversy during President Donald Trump's administration after he removed the United States from the organization in May. Trump claimed that the WHO was under the influence of the Chinese government and had misled the world about the COVID-19 pandemic. He also argued that the United States would save money by withdrawing from the multinational group, pointing to the $450 million that the American government spends each year as a member state of the organization.

Public health experts condemned Trump's decision at the time. Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, described the WHO as "one of the world's leading public health agencies." "The WHO plays an important role in international cooperative efforts, not only against COVID-19 but against many other global diseases and health challenges," Medford told Salon.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, echoed Medford's concern. "The US withdrawal from the WHO will almost certainly hurt US's soft power abroad and reduce its influence," Feigl-Ding told Salon at the time. "It will hurt US interests in countless sectors beyond health, from economic investments and national security."

President Joe Biden had the United States rejoin the WHO shortly after taking office. Dr. Irwin Redlener, leader of Columbia University's Pandemic Response Initiative, praised Biden's decision.

"It was totally irresponsible for us to withdraw in the first place. It is the only global organization working on this extraordinary global crisis," Redlener told Salon in January.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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