The Coronavirus Was Just Declared a Pandemic. What Does this Mean?


The Coronavirus Was Just Declared a Pandemic. What Does this Mean?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Even as we, here in India, praise our namastes and trump up the healing powers of haldi and lemon, the rest of the world continues to be alarmed by the rise of Covid-19, or the novel coronavirus. Late last night, the World Health Organisation officially announced that the disease would be classified as a “pandemic”, seemingly confirming every conspiracy theorist’s prediction that the end of days is closer than we earlier imagined.

This announcement, while expected for a few weeks, was made on the WHO’s official Twitter handle, under a “Breaking News” banner. In the tweet, the organisation expresses its concern with the speed at which this new virus is spreading as well as notes the inaction seen in most countries across the world, which it says is aiding the spread of the new respiratory infection.

The secretary general of the UN Antonio Guterres, too, tweeted a video with his reaction to the WHO’s announcement, stating that this upgrade in classification was “a call to action — for everyone, everywhere”. Hours later, at a press conference, the WHO director emphasised that this was not a word that the organisation uses “lightly or carelessly”.

So even as memes continue to spread as fast as the virus itself, the WHO’s recent announcement is a harsh reminder to stop taking it so lightly. Not since the Swine Flu breakout in 2009 has an influenza been declared a “pandemic”, and that move, too, was widely criticised because after the announcement the virus petered out. Even the SARS-Ebola-Zika combination that has made headlines across the world since has managed to avoid the damning classification. In fact, before Swine Flu, the last outbreak to earn this status was a strain of influenza that started appearing in 1968, and went on to kill one million people across the world.

So why is this coronavirus the first to be bestowed by such an infamous honour since then?

For that we need to understand the term “pandemic”, specifically how it differs from its less severe variant, “epidemic”. An epidemic is defined as the uncontrolled spread of illness over a large part of the world over a short period of time. Once that particular illness has spread to almost every continent and country in the world, and ceases to be bound by its point of origin, it’s goes on to be classified as a “pandemic.”

There’s no other option now but to stay put and stay healthy.

So if that’s the only criteria, why haven’t the previous worldwide outbreaks counted? For one, the WHO argues that the number of reported cases in such a short period is too staggeringly large — approximately 1,80,000 cases have been reported across the world with over 4,000 deaths so far, entire countries are under lockdown, and flights out of Europe have been grounded. Meanwhile, the WHO points out, that the disease has gotten a foothold in all continents of the world barring Antarctica, implying that it has the chance to infect several thousands more before it can be contained.

“In the days and weeks ahead we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” the WHO director said.

But even within this startling announcement was a glimmer of hope. In his speech, the UN official did also stress that this classification of coronavirus was in no way meant to create fear and panic in people, but was merely a reminder to all the countries that they could still do more to “change the course of the pandemic”.

So while it remains to be seen where the next few weeks will take us, for now, let’s find solace in the fact that more than 90 per cent of the coronavirus cases are just in four countries, and that two of them — China and South Korea — are already showing signs that the virus is in decline. Until then, there’s no other option but to stay put and stay healthy.