COVID-19 epidemic is now an official pandemic

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has reached pandemic status, spanning 114 countries and territories, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared. The novel coronavirus that emerged three months ago has rapidly infected more than 126,000 people, taking the lives of more than 4,600.  

The WHO continues to monitor the spread of the virus closely and is gravely concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's Director-General, noted that this is the first time that a coronavirus has sparked a global 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," Dr. Tedros said in a press conference.

"We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic," he said.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is an outbreak happening on a scale that crosses international boundaries. From time to time, the WHO declares a pandemic if the disease has affected a large number of people, across multiple continents.

In the past two weeks, the cases of COVID-19 outside mainland China have increased 13-fold, and the number of affected nations has tripled, sparking concerns on how the disease is ravaging countries and killing thousands of people.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which first appeared in a now locked down Wuhan City in Hubei Province, China, has sickened more than a hundred thousand people, spanning 114 countries. China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea are the most shaken countries amid the coronavirus outbreak.

China, particularly in Hubei Province, reported the highest number of infections, with more than 80,000 people sickened, while more than 3,000 have succumbed to the wrath of the disease. Mostly, the virus affects older adults, who are 60 years old and above, more, and those with underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and lung disease.

Italy is the most affected country outside mainland China with 12,462 confirmed cases and a staggering 827 deaths, with a fatality rate of 6.6 percent. The country is the second area to be locked down due to the rapid spread of the virus.

Iran has reported 9,000 confirmed cases and 354 deaths, while South Korea has 7,755 confirmed cases and 60 deaths.

"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," Dr. Tedros explained.

"Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn't change what WHO is doing, and it doesn't change what countries should do," he added.

The virus

Many coronaviruses circulate globally and continually infect humans, which is typically manifested as mild respiratory disease. However, over the past decade, several coronaviruses have posed a serious health threat to many populations, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2: This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab.  Credit: NIAID-RML

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2: This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Credit: NIAID-RML

What does a pandemic mean for the world?

Though the WHO has declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, it does not change its assessment of the virus's threat to human populations. It also does not change what the WHO and countries are doing to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate its negative impact on health care systems, economies, and populations.

A pandemic is declared by the WHO, and there is no threshold for the number of infections or deaths or the number of countries affected. An epidemic is classified as a pandemic if it is infectious and has become a global outbreak.

For instance, the SARS outbreak in 2003 was not classified as a pandemic despite the virus spreading to 26 countries. However, the spread of the virus was contained quickly, and only a few countries were deeply affected, including Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.

A declaration of a pandemic is not to ignite panic, but to raise awareness about the global health crisis.  The WHO urge all countries to change the course of the pandemic, since many nations are now struggling with the lack of the capacity to contain the spread of the virus. In some countries, the lack of resources predisposes health workers to the infection, while other countries are not capable of controlling the outbreak.

"If countries 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," Dr. Tedros said.

"Even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can turn the tide on this virus," he added.

The declaration of a pandemic should not be a cause of panic across the globe. Instead, it should spark communities to start containing the spread of the virus. Panic buying goods such as alcohol, surgical masks, tissue, and other disinfectants will not do good to the current scarcity of resources. This predisposes front liners and health workers to the infection.

What can be done?

The COVID-19 virus infects people of all ages, but evidence suggests that two groups of people are at a higher risk of experiencing complications and severe coronavirus disease. Older people and those with underlying health conditions must protect themselves.

Though the coronavirus disease has been declared a pandemic, it is crucial to practice good hygiene to help curb its spread. The WHO recommends people wash their hands frequently with soap and water, maintain social distancing at 3 feet, avoid close contact with others who manifest symptoms such as cough, avoid touching the face, mouth, nose, and mouth, and practice respiratory hygiene.

Those who are sick should stay at home, and those who are at a high risk of severe COVID-19 should avoid large crowds and public places in the meantime.

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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