As the pandemic recedes globally, a new health crisis has emerged

Countries must pay heed to WHO's warning about Covid-19's mental health toll

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Last weekend marked a key turning point in the pandemic’s progress in the UAE, with a number of significant announcements regarding changes to border restrictions, face mask mandates and travel guidelines.

Abu Dhabi's Emergency, Crisis and Disaster Management Committee said commuters coming into the capital would no longer have to show Al Hosn app when travelling by road.

Ncema also said on Friday that fully vaccinated travellers from abroad only need to show a vaccine certificate with a readable QR code on arrival in the UAE. The authority’s guidance for passengers to undergo a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival remains.

Finally, the requirement to wear face masks outside was dropped as well, although they are still required to be worn inside in most places.

It has been predicted for some time that a mental health crisis would follow the pandemic

Ncema went over the details of these announcements during one of its regular online briefings on Wednesday evening and issued updates on several other policies, while taking the opportunity to remind UAE residents that each emirate has flexibility in its application of these measures.

The authority also said that the success the UAE has shown in its pandemic response – the country ranks top of the Bloomberg Covid-19 response index this year – would not have been possible without co-ordinated response among relevant authorities, as well as societal commitment.

The decisions were made against a background of cases receding in the country and infection outcomes continuing to improve.

The UAE reported approximately 500 new cases on Wednesday and, more generally, active cases have been in sharp decline since hitting their peak in the first week of February. The Omicron wave of the virus that swept into the country at the end of 2021 may have been highly transmissible – a fact reflected in the noticeable spike in infections at the start of 2022 – but it has proved a weaker and more manageable strain than previous variants.

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has spoken about the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Reuters

While some will argue it is premature to call it, this does feel like a pivotal time and may mark the moment when we finally cross from pandemic to endemic or move towards a post-pandemic settlement.

Like in other parts of the world, we continue to undertake a process of learning to live with Covid-19, backed by the key tenets of access to cheap and readily available PCR testing and an effective vaccination process that Ncema said on Wednesday had reached a ratio of 259.1 per cent of the national population, taking into account multiple doses. Al Hosn app’s green pass system has also proved a highly effective tool over the course of the pandemic.

It is two years this month since the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and lockdowns were imposed around the world. It has been a long haul to get to this point.

The calculations that we all made at the time about how long we might live under preventive measures now seem naive. Very few people believed two years ago that measures would stay in place for as long as they have.

Even the beginning of the widespread distribution of vaccines at the beginning of last year, initially hailed as the moment when the pandemic tide would turn around the world, did not unfold that way. Uneven vaccine distribution globally remains a significant problem to solve a year and more later.

The WHO on Wednesday remarked that it was encouraged to see countries around the world relaxing restrictions without placing undue strain on health systems, but that it was “far too early to declare victory over Covid-19”.

At the same time, the organisation released new data about anxiety and depression rates globally since the onset of the pandemic, reporting a sharp increase – 25 per cent – in diagnosis of these and other mental health conditions.

On one level, this is not at all surprising. It has been predicted for some time that a mental health crisis would follow the pandemic. After all, most of us have experienced some form of loss of control over our own destinies over the past two years. Many of us have lost in one way or another, whether that is lost time with friends, families or colleagues or lost opportunities at work, school or socially, or in the most visceral sense of lost loved ones. Most of us have a sense that our lives are not the same as they were two years ago, nor are they likely to be.

On another level, increased rates of anxiety and depression may also indicate there is broader societal acceptance of seeking help and receiving treatment than ever before.

Certainly, mental health is a more central part of all our worlds than ever before, but as the organisation’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, remarked on the publication of the new data: “The information we have now about the impact of Covid-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”

If his prognosis is correct, we now know the scale of what the pandemic will leave behind. The complex business of societal recovery must begin in earnest at a moment when the world seems more uncertain and brittle than ever and at a juncture when, understandably, our gaze is firmly fixed on events in Europe.

Published: March 04, 2022, 4:00 AM