WHO declared the COVID-19 a pandemic but what does it mean?

March 12, 2020 - 2:00 PM
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Daily life in Manila amid new coronavirus cases
Commuters wear protective face masks as they queue to get into a train amid new cases of coronavirus in Manila, Philippines, March 11, 2020. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

The World Health Organization announced on early Thursday (Philippine time) that COVID-19 “can be characterized” as a pandemic after it assessed 118,000 cases in 114 countries and as the confirmed cases continued to rise.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that they were deeply alarmed not only by the spread and severity of the disease but by the levels of inaction to contain it as well.

Of the 118,000 cases, more than 90% are found in just four countries. Two of them, China and South Korea, already have declining epidemics.

Ghebreyesus urged other countries, particularly the 81 countries without any reported cases yet, to “detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.”

Following this pronouncement and the surge in the number of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 in the Philippines, some Filipinos expressed fear and confusion on social media, mostly questioning the impact of the virus being “pandemic.”

Others, meanwhile, perceived the declaration too late.

coronavirus reaction on pandemic
Screenshot by Interaksyon

As of March 12, DOH reported a total of 49 confirmed cases and two deaths related to the disease.

A 67-year-old Filipino woman is the country’s second death and the first Filipino woman to die of COVID-19.

Pandemic 101

Merriam-Webster defines pandemic as “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”

For WHO, a pandemic happens when a new disease had already spread worldwide.

In January, the health organization declared the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern and not a pandemic even if other countries outside China have reported cases that time.

WHO acknowledged how the word “pandemic” can cause unnecessary fear, Ghebreyesuss said, which will result to suffering and death if used carelessly.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” he said.

A pandemic differs from an outbreak and an epidemic in terms on the size of the affected population.

An article from The Conversation likened an outbreak to a large number of children who suddenly experienced diarrhea at a daycare center.

“Imagine an unusual spike in the number of children with diarrhea at a daycare. One or two sick kids might be normal in a typical week, but if 15 children in a daycare come down with diarrhea all at once, that is an outbreak,” it explained.

It becomes an epidemic when the illness gets transmitted to more children in other locations outside the daycare.

In this case, epidemiologists classified COVID-19 as an epidemic when it quickly spread across China and outside of Wuhan, a populous city in China where the outbreak happened.

A pandemic might sound scary, but it doesn’t change anything in terms of the disease’s severity.

“It just means a disease is spreading widely. There can be pandemics of mild illness, like that H1N1 flu turned out to be in 2009,” Associated Press said.

Pandemic events in the past

The world has experienced pandemics since 1580, the earliest ever recorded.

According to CNN, at least four pandemics of influenza varieties occurred, one in the 19th century and another three in the 20th century.

So far, the most severe of all is the 1918 influenza pandemic, otherwise known as the “Spanish flu.” It infected about 500 million people worldwide and killed at least 50 million.

Prior to COVID-19, the last pandemic that reached the Philippines is the influenza A(H1N1) virus, the first flu pandemic of the 21st century, in 2009.

The H1N1 flu, which mostly affected students, caused the postponement of classes for all colleges and universities nationwide.

DOH also could no longer contain the spread of the pathogen at that time and resorted to mitigation instead.