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WHO declares coronavirus a pandemic. What does this mean?

Coronavirus Pandemic: Before this, questions had been raised about why, despite the massive spread of COVID19, the WHO had continued to call it an 'outbreak', and not a pandemic.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: March 12, 2020 9:57:27 am
pandemic, who pandemic, what is a pandemic, coronavirus pandemic, is coronavirus a pandemic, world health organisation, coronavirus death toll Medical staff measures the temperature of a bus driver at the border crossing with Germany in Rozvadov, Czech Republic (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

As fresh coronavirus cases continue to be reported from different countries, the World Health Organization on Wednesday (March 11) finally declared the novel coronavirus a ‘pandemic‘.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” the WHO tweeted.

Before this, questions had been raised about why, despite the massive spread of COVID19, the WHO had continued to call it an ‘outbreak’, and not a pandemic.

What is a pandemic?

According to the WHO, a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a pandemic as “an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

The same body defines an epidemic as “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”

Thus, the ‘pandemic’ status has to do more with the spread of the disease, than its severity.

On February 24, Dr Michael J Ryan, a senior WHO official, told reporters that the word “pandemic comes from the Greek ‘pandemos’, which means everybody”, CNN reported. “Demos means the population. Pan meaning everyone. So ‘pandemos’ is a concept where there’s a belief that the whole world’s population will likely be exposed to this infection and potentially a proportion of them fall sick,” Dr Ryan said.

Explained: Govt invokes 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act to fight coronavirus; what is it? Coronavirus outbreak: At a government school in New Delhi on March 11, 2020. (Express Photo: Amit Mehra)

Till very recently, the WHO had maintained that the scale of the coronavirus infection, though alarming, was not enough to qualify it as a pandemic.

On March 5, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO, said: “Although a few countries are reporting large numbers of cases, 115 countries have not reported any cases. Twenty-one countries have reported only one case. And five countries that had reported cases have not reported new cases in the past 14 days.”

Coronavirus a pandemic: What changes?

In a way, not much. Declaring the disease a pandemic won’t mean the WHO gets more funds or more powers to fight it. However, the declaration is a formal announcement that the WHO assesses the impact of COVID 19 to have reached a new level.

On March 11, Dr Ghebreyesus said: “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. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this #coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

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