On March 11th, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The novel coronavirus (What is a Coronavirus?), which originated in a central Chinese wet market and began spreading about three months ago, has now spread to over 100 countries and infected more than 121,000 people. It has strained health systems and hurt economies worldwide (What is the Impact of Coronavirus Outbreak on Businesses and the Global Economy?).
“In the past two weeks the number of cases outside China has increased thirteenfold and the number of affected countries has tripled,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference at the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva. “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries to climb even higher.”
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A pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations. It has nothing to do with the characteristics of the disease; rather, it is about its geographic reach.
A pandemic is different from an endemic, which is more regional or local in its impact, and from an epidemic, which is a sudden increase in the number of cases in that area.
There have been many pandemics throughout history. Infamous examples are smallpox, tuberculosis and the Black Death (plague). More recent examples are the 1918 influenza and HIV/AIDS. The last time the WHO declared a pandemic was during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
The WHO declares a pandemic, but there is no particular threshold, like number of deaths, number of infections or number of countries affected. For example, the previous coronavirus outbreak of SARS in 2003 affected 26 countries but was not declared a pandemic. And the 2009 declaration of H1N1 as a pandemic was later criticised as having caused unnecessary panic, something the WHO itself conceded.
China and South Korea have reported a decline in the number of new cases. But the list of infections and countries affected elsewhere is meanwhile growing in the rest of the world. Italy and Iran are particularly adversely affected. The US expects the number of cases in the country to increase in the coming days and has halted most flights from Europe. In India, the latest count puts it at 73 infected. (How to Safeguard your Financial Health Amidst the Coronavirus Outbreak?)
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