COVID-19 in transition
First Voice

Editor's note: CGTN's Straight Talk, as the video column for CGTN First Voice, brings in dialogues with experts from across the world to offer a nuanced take on contemporary issues and events of global relevance.

On January 30, the World Health Organization said the COVID-19 pandemic still constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. The view is that it's at a "transition point."

What does the "transition point" mean?

Charles Ng, a medical doctor who holds a Master's degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, spoke with CGTN to discuss the meaning of "transition point" and what more needed to be done. He led the COVideo19 initiative and published the Digital Solutions for Covid-19 Response for the Bill & Melinda gates Foundation.

Edited excerpts:

CGTN: How do you interpret WHO's characterization of the COVID-19 pandemic being in "transition"?

Charles Ng: In most of the richer countries, the pandemic has entered a plateau stage. Death rate, hospitalization rates have all declined to levels only slightly higher than influenza compared with original strains. 

But that's not the case in Africa and much of the developing world. Shaky health infrastructure, under-trained healthcare workers, gear shortages, oxygen shortages beset their people. Not to mention, even in a developed world, vaccination rates are at an average of only around 70 percent. Vaccine access still remains an issue, especially in its suburban rural areas. That's not the case only in China, but also across the world.And mind you, in China, the vaccination rate is actually pretty high compared with most of the other richer countries.

But it is against this backdrop that the WHO has to show signs of resilience. PHEIC is just a warning that no one should take comfort in the midst of the uncertain perils brought about by an ever-mutating virus. Vaccine hesitancy, health misinformation remain as top priorities. You can see even Monkeypox is still labeled as PHEIC. Compared to that, COVID-19 represents a much greater and broader public health challenge on a global scale.

Canceling PHEIC at this stage may be seen by developing countries as being irresponsible since they have yet to catch up. So, transition phase is also a signal that WHO realizes while many parts of the world are pivoting and that leading scientists also agree that SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay for good. In short, PHEIC cannot remain forever. But, in terms of the current public health crisis, more needs to be done before world leaders can sit back and relax.

CGTN: As we've seen from China's Spring Festival holiday travels, the more than 225 million passenger trips didn't cause a spike in infection cases. How would you assess China's COVID-19 response at this moment?

Charles Ng: China has actually done pretty well against other countries' predictions. Now just take a look back at COVID, XBB1.5, the newest predominant strain, originated from New York. There's no evidence that China is exporting novel, mutated strains. Vaccination rates, as I mentioned, are also a lot higher in China than America. As much as a minority of countries criticize China's homegrown vaccine, evidence has already shown it helps reduce mortality and morbidity when infected by the virus. The science and numbers speak for themselves.

As I see now, travel restrictions against Chinese mainland tourists look more like discrimination and political stunts. It's completely illogical. It's against the diplomatic norms and absolutely bonkers. What surprises most people is that the leaders who erected these restrictions represent the countries that often say they have the most advanced science. Such a shame.

CGTN: What more should be done for the world to get through this "transition"? We've seen China the beefing up of protections for the vulnerable population since its policy change. How could the international community strengthen its cooperation in this last stretch of the pandemic?

Charles Ng: Exactly. I'll repeat this message again and again in all the media, when I write articles: Get those jabs! The cities are doing pretty good. It's the villagers in rural areas that need the most help accessing vaccine and drugs. We don't want those farther off from the city centers to feel left behind, because such was the sentiment that gave rise to populism in America and Britain.

The mantra: "leave no one behind." In fact, this was the exact mantra of the Chinese central government when it chose to enact tighter pandemic policies in the last 2 to 3 years. To the international community, I would urge countries and scientists to share research, data and learnings even in the post COVID area proves wise to improve emergency preparedness.

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