On 15 May, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 is no longer a public international health emergency after more than three years of the pandemic.
This news was met with different reactions, ranging from joy and the feeling that the world is back to normalcy, to disappointment because of worries that eliminating all restrictions might not end well.
Egyptians and other nations around the world have given up on wearing masks long before it was safe to do so, especially during peak COVID-19, but is that the right move now?
While COVID-19 is not endemic—a disease that is prevalent in a particular country or area—it is important to remember that COVID-19 is not extinct either; according to the WHO website, there have been 1,196,964 new COVID-19 cases and 8,324 deaths recorded worldwide since 1 May. Of course, the number is much less in Egypt overall since Egypt only records hospitalized cases, with zero cases and deaths in May so far, after 110 cases and 7 deaths in April.
It is assumed that there is no need for that now, and any other opinion promotes fear-mongering. On the contrary, it is obvious that the harshest days of the pandemic are behind us, but there are many reasons to keep masking.
One of the main reasons is that the pandemic has weakened the immune systems of those who were infected, becoming more susceptible to reinfection or catching any other virus, like influenza A and B. Abandoning masks and treating it as survival of the fittest is insulting to those who are sick.
Is COVID-19 Milder Now?
While the news of the pandemic ending is certainly good news, it does not mean that the threat of the virus has disappeared completely. COVID-19 is still a highly contagious virus. Even if the risk of severe illness or death has decreased, individuals who contract the virus can still spread it to others who may be immunocompromised, elderly, or young.
Moreover, COVID-19 is not necessarily milder in 2023, even when it infects completely healthy individuals. People who get reinfected report that it is just as bad as the first time, disproving the myth that the more a person gets infected, the stronger a person’s immunity will be and the easier it gets. Additionally, milder reinfections do not necessarily mean they’re trivial. COVID-19 might not still carry some of the extreme symptoms that patients exhibited during the early pandemic, but the clinical and the long term impact of the illness is still potent.
Some people who have contracted COVID-19 any time in the last three years have reported some ongoing symptoms that medical professionals have labeled as ‘Long COVID’. The symptoms of Long COVID range from fatigue and not being able to exert the same energy as before to digestive and neurological problems. Some people even reported developing cardiological problems after COVID-19. These effects last for anything from mere weeks to months and even years.
So, even if COVID looks easier to deal with now than it used to be, not being infected at all will always be better than being infected and healing. Additionally, while vaccines have been effective in building immunity and lessening the symptoms of COVID-19 and Long COVID, they do not provide full protection. That is why it is recommended by medical professionals to use another non-pharmacological method of protection like masking.
Beyond COVID-19, there are many health benefits to masking for one’s own health, like protection from pollution and allergy and asthma management. It should be common courtesy to wear a mask if one experiences any symptoms of a regular cold, flu, or fever, even after a negative COVID-19 test; masks have been proven to decrease the transmissions of most respiratory viruses, especially in crowded areas like public transportation, airports, cinemas, theaters, concerts, malls and supermarkets.
Many countries in East Asia have a history of wearing masks as a common practice and courtesy in public spaces even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This practice increased after the SARS outbreak in China in 2002, and then it was kept as a way to lessen the spread of common bacteria, viruses, and dust, especially in public transport and crowded areas. It is definitely a respectful way to build community instead of coughing and sneezing publicly, because not everyone should be subjected to germs by association.
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that mask-wearing is not the ultimate cure and should be accompanied by other measures, such as hand hygiene and vaccination. However, by recognizing the value of this cultural practice and incorporating it into our own communities, we can help to create a more resilient and healthy society, both in the face of the hopefully-bygone pandemic and for general public health challenges.
The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.