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WHO Europe chief: Pandemic emergency phase likely to end this year

Is the worst of the coronavirus pandemic coming to an end in Europe? That just might be the case, says the World Health Organization's regional director.

(CN) — The World Health Organization's European head on Monday said there is hope the worst of the coronavirus pandemic will be over later this year.

“The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO's regional director for Europe and Central Asia.

With weekly protests breaking out in European cities over coronavirus restrictions and weary Europeans ready to get their lives back to normal, Kluge's optimism about an end to the pandemic's acute phase can only bring much needed relief to Europeans and hope to the rest of the world.

Although the virus is still circulating at extraordinary rates in Europe, Kluge said the omicron variant is quickly becoming the dominant strain but it is causing a much less severe infection in most people.

He said the unvaccinated are those most at risk of winding up in intensive care for Covid-19, the name of the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Omicron is displacing delta with unprecedented speed,” he said in a statement. “Less than two months since it was first discovered in South Africa, it now accounts for 31.8% of cases across the European region, up from 15% the previous week, and 6.3% the week before that.”

Kluge said omicron “appears to cause much less severe disease than delta.”

“We are still seeing a rapid rise in hospitalizations, due to the sheer number of infections,” he said. “This is in addition to a delta burden that has not entirely passed, and also to the high number of incidental admissions.”

Two years ago in late January, Europe began detecting its first scattered cases of the respiratory disease linked to a novel coronavirus that had emerged at the end of 2019 in Wuhan, China.

At first, European leaders, as was the case with those in much of the world, took little action to stop the spread of the new virus but soon their inaction turned into a nightmare scenario as the virus ran rampant across Europe, the United States, Mexico and South America.

In Europe, Italy was hit the hardest first with hospitals quickly becoming overwhelmed in parts of the Lombardy region, including Italy's financial and industrial center of Milan. By the end of March, many towns and cities in Lombardy became terrifying places where the sound of ambulance sirens were heard throughout the days and nights as sick and dying patients were ferried to hospitals and makeshift treatment centers. Italy became the first country in the world to order a nationwide lockdown.

Caught off-guard and unprepared, Europe found itself without sufficient supplies of medical masks, respirators, medicines and emergency beds. Years of budget cuts and austerity measures following the Great Recession left many European regions poorly prepared for the crisis.

Making matters worse, the European Union's sense of solidarity and cooperation was crushed as countries took unilateral decisions to close borders, hoard supplies and blame each other for allowing the disease to take off.

By April 2020, most of Europe was in unprecedented lockdowns where people were told they could only leave their homes for essential reasons, such as to go to work and buy food and medicine.

Still, even with the lockdowns, the number of new infections and deaths continued to climb and only began to slow with the coming of warmer weather.

Many Europeans saw severe restrictions re-imposed by the fall of 2020 as the coronavirus made a strong comeback and, to the disbelief and horror of many, this second wave turned out to be even more lethal.

The rollout of vaccination campaigns in early 2021 across Europe put the coronavirus in check and now Europe has one of the world's highest vaccination rates. Many European governments have not been hesitant to force workers and adults to get vaccinated through mandates, vaccination passes and other measures. About 1.4 billion vaccine doses have been administered in Europe.

Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Kluge said Europe “should be proud of how far we have come and how much we have learned and adapted to this once-in-a-generation crisis.”

“But that did not come without the unacceptable human cost,” he added. “Every single hour since the pandemic’s onset, 99 people in the region have lost their lives to Covid-19. We mourn the more than 1.7 million people in the European region who are no longer with us.”

He said the pandemic has had a major toll on populations, driving up poverty rates, causing tremendous levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among health workers and resulting in huge medical backlogs.

“Although omicron offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization, our work is not done,” he said. “Huge disparities in access to vaccines remain. If 2021 was the year of vaccine production, 2022 must be the year of vaccine equity in the European region and beyond.”

Kluge said the lack of vaccines in some parts of the world is driving transmission, prolonging the pandemic and increasing the likelihood of new variants.

“This pandemic, like all other pandemics before it, will end, but it is far too early to relax,” he cautioned. “With the millions of infections occurring in the world in recent and coming weeks, coupled with waning immunity and winter seasonality, it is almost a given that new Covid-19 variants will emerge and return.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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