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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) used the word “pandemic” to refer to the global spread of COVID-19. Ever since the disease, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, was identified in China in December 2019, it has been detected in over 100 countries. As of this publishing, WHO has confirmed 118,326 cases and 4,292 fatalities worldwide. However, the word “pandemic” isn’t actually a formal designation. In fact, WHO stopped officially using it after the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009, due to the amount of panic and “unreasonable fear” it generated at the time. So why use the word now—and if it’s not a reason for us to panic, then what does it really mean?

Infectious diseases can be described in a number of ways, depending on how widespread they are. The term outbreak applies when cases of a particular disease suddenly occur beyond the typical rate within a specific, localized area or population.

If the outbreak becomes less localized and increases in severity—like an infectious disease rapidly hitting thousands of people within a region or country—it becomes an epidemic.

However, when an infectious disease suddenly spreads to different countries or continents and exhibits “sustained domestic transmission” (including cases that are not directly linked to travel or exposure to people who’ve traveled), it can be described as a pandemic.

The word “pandemic” has nothing to do with a disease’s fatality rate, though. There are no rules on how deadly a disease has to be before it can be considered a pandemic. In other words, COVID-19 is not necessarily more lethal now than it was before its pandemic status.

So it’s a pandemic—so what?

So why did it take WHO months to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, and how does this affect us?

According to WHO officials, the organization finds the current spread and severity of the disease deeply concerning, as well as the “alarming levels of inaction” towards it. However, they had to observe more non-travel-related cases outside of China before acknowledging sustained domestic transmission worldwide.

Ideally, with this declaration comes a shift in focus from containment (preventing it from escaping a specific region) to mitigation (reducing its impact and prevalence within infected global communities). In the Philippines, involved agencies and medical professionals have been endorsing and implementing mitigation strategies, such as travel bans and social distancing, even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

A pandemic does not mean that hope is lost. It simply means that the world has to work harder and faster to ensure that the disease loses.

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Cover photo: bakhtiarzein/VectorStock



Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco

Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.