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Coronavirus is Now a Pandemic. What Does It Mean?

From Pandemic to Public Health Emergency of International Concern, what does all this mean?

Updated
Health News
3 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

After weeks of 'pandemic potential', 'verge of pandemic', 'possible pandemic', the World Health Organisation finally announced the Novel Coronavirus outbreak a Pandemic. With over 4000 deaths and the spread 'world over', a pandemic announcement makes news, but does it change much? Specially since WHO had already declared the outbreak a 'Public Health Emergency of International Concern'?

Well, in pure financial terms, it changes little. And WHO was at pains to explain it.

Tedros Adhanom Ghereyesus, the WHO chief, made it clear that, "describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by the coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do."

A Call to Action

What the term actually does is that it acts as a call to action. It's asking global leaders to step up preparedness, to assess, screen, act and 'flatten the curve' of the pandemic. WHO made it clear that this pandemic could possibly be the first to be 'contained.'

A paper published in the Lancet has analysed restrictive action taken by countries and the finding is that short term highly restrictive measures will have a greater impact in containing the epidemic than long term cautious steps.

Coronavirus is Now a Pandemic. What Does It Mean?
The Lancet
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Pandemic is Not a Cause for Panic But Preparedness

Calling the outbreak a pandemic doesn't change the severity of the disease. The fatality rate of the novel coronavirus remains less than SARS and in 81 percent of patients the symptoms are still mild. The virus hasn't dramatically evolved or changed in nature and those countries that have taken massive restrictive measures have successfully contained the virus.

The WHO simply describes pandemics as 'global spread of the disease.' And that's precisely what's happened with the novel coronavirus from the time it first emerged in a sea food market in Wuhan in mid Dec 2019. It became and 'epidemic' when it crossed it's geographical area and spread across China. And when it crossed over three continents, it pretty much became a 'pandemic.'

The 2002-2003 SARS outbreak remained an outbreak - it never became a pandemic. It's the same with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the 2016 Zika outbreak. By definition they remained epidemics. Though they were given another more real nomenclature. The last pandemic was the H1N1 flu that spread across the world infecting over 200,000 cases in 2009.

A WHO article describes pandemic as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” It adds, “a true influenza pandemic occurs when almost simultaneous transmission takes place worldwide.”

What the article is referring to is community-wide transmission not limited to imported cases. And community-wide transmission has been reported from multiple countries with many new epicentres of the disease emerging across continents. Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea have all seen rapid community-wide transmission with Italy having practically locked down most of the country.

And when country wide transmission happens, the steps taken move from containment to mitigating the impact. It basically means, the outbreak will have a real impact, but we need to now mitigate it. And prevent it from becoming a crisis we can't emerge from. However, once again, the WHO still believes that the current pandemic can very much be contained, and efforts by the government should be focused towards containment.

'Public Health Emergency of International Concern,' is a more technical term. It invites concrete action from governments and diverts funding to deal with containment at a more rapid pace.

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