The optimism triggered by the WHO data should be tempered with caution since there have been spikes in several countries. Image Credit: Gulf News

COVID-19 is still around, but the world is trying to move on. People are no longer held hostage by the coronavirus: employees are back in offices, students have returned to classes, and travel has resumed in full swing. Life’s close to normal, yet there’s still some way to go.

The recovery has been steady, and the World Health Organisation provided more evidence, reporting a 9 per cent decline in new coronavirus cases worldwide as compared to the previous week. The announcement on August 3 also said the number of deaths remained stable.

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, England, told the Associated Press that COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations are likely to continue the fall in the following weeks.

Covid WHO
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

That’s a good augury, but the optimism should be tempered with caution since there have been spikes in several countries. Over the past year, there have been surges followed by a sharp dip in infections. New waves are often triggered by the arrival of newer variants of the virus.

Even amid such reality checks, the WHO figures give hope of a full recovery soon. Of the 6.5 million cases reported during the last week of July, the spike in cases was mainly in the Western Pacific (20 per cent, more than 1.3 million cases) and Africa (5 per cent, 328,283 cases). But that has been offset by a 35 per cent fall in new cases in Europe. That’s encouraging since much of Europe has lifted COVID restrictions and travel has gathered pace.

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Deaths dwindle in Europe

Deaths too have dropped globally. Although the WHO reported more than 14,000 deaths during the week, most were in the Western Pacific (44 per cent, 6,238) and the Middle East (26 per cent, 3,686). Europe had fewer casualties, with deaths dropping by a quarter.

These are heartwarming statistics, but the WHO has warned against reading too much into the data. It had previously said that COVID surveillance has recently been severely compromised in some countries, which have slackened their testing and reporting systems. So the COVID figures could be significantly underestimated.

Some experts insist that COVID safety protocols should remain in place since health systems in many countries continue to be under pressure.

James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford, England, advised people to continue getting vaccinated as reinfections are real. “We have to hope that the incidence of long COVID from this wave will be lower than in the first and second waves,” he told the Associated Press.

Where are the new waves of infections?

The five countries with the most cases, according to the WHO report, were Japan, the United States, South Korea, Germany, and Italy. The most deaths were in the US, Brazil, Italy, Japan and Australia.

In the Western Pacific region, the highest jump in cases was in Japan, which recorded a 42 per cent rise with an average of more than 200,000 cases per day. The country’s healthcare system is under strain in some areas, partly due to COVID-19 among the staff, according to the Japan Times.

South Korea has reported more than 100,000 cases daily since April, the Korea Herald said. According to WHO, infections in South Korea rose by 25 per cent compared to the week before.

China is still struggling to shrug off the virus despite a Zero-COVID” strategy. A part of Wuhan city, where COVID-19 was first detected in December 2019, was shut down after four cases were detected.

In Africa, the biggest increases were reported from Liberia, Seychelles, and Rwanda.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

What’s driving the new surge?

In its report, the WHO said that Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 were driving the latest wave of infections. BA.5 cases rose from 64 per cent to 70 per cent of them, while BA.4 infections rose slightly, from 10.9 per cent to 11.8 per cent.

Has the virus become endemic?

What’s endemicity? It is the state when a pathogen or virus becomes endemic or so common among the population that they cease to worry about it. Much like the common cold or flu.

Has COVID changed from a pandemic to an endemic? A New York Times report says endemicity happens when the average infected person infects fewer than one other person. That has not happened. Since newer strains infect more than one person, we haven’t reached an endemic state.

Infections, hospitalisations and deaths have reduced in much of the world. That’s more to do with people’s immunity. The arrival of several vaccines had helped prime human immune systems to fight the coronavirus better. It worked even against newer variants although at reduced effectiveness. A new strain like Delta or Omicron can upend the gains.

What does the future look like?

Epidemiologists say the virus will continue to mutate to evade the human immune response, but that wouldn’t erase the immune protection from vaccinations or previous infections. So pharma firms will have to roll out a new generation of vaccines, tailor-made for newer variants. The elderly and people with underlying health conditions will remain at risk.

Back to the WHO data in July. Does the 9 per cent dip in weekly cases matter? It matters. It gives hope. Hope that we can outrun the virus. But the chase will continue so long as there are new variants. And viruses mutate to survive and propagate.

Normality looks distant. A life alongside coronavirus is likely to be the new reality.