On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) upgraded the status of the COVID-19 outbreak from epidemic to pandemic. Here are five important pieces of information on what this means for you and your community.
1) What’s the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?
Before Wednesday’s WHO announcement, the COVID-19 outbreak was described by the UN health agency as an epidemic, meaning that it has been spreading to many people, and many communities, at the same time.
Labelling the spread a pandemic, indicates that it has officially spread around the world, and is also a reflection of the WHO's concern at what it calls the “alarming levels of the coronavirus spread, severity and inaction”, and the expectation that the number of cases, deaths and affected countries will continue to climb.
2) Should I be now be more worried about COVID-19?
Calling COVID-19 a pandemic does not mean that it has become more deadly, it is an acknowledgement of its global spread.
Tedros Adhananon Ghebreyesus, the head of WHO, said as much at a media briefing on Wednesday, when he insisted that the pandemic label does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by the virus: “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do”.
Tedros also called on the world not to fixate on the word “pandemic”, but to focus instead on five other words or phrases, beginning with “p”: Prevention, Preparedness, Public health, Political leadership and People.
The WHO chief acknowledged that the COVID-19 spread is the first pandemic to be caused by a coronavirus (i.e. any of the large variety of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases).
However, he also pointed out that all countries can still change the course of this pandemic, and that it is the first ever, that can actually be controlled.
3) What should countries do?
WHO reiterated its call for countries to detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their citizens, to ensure that those with just a handful of cases can prevent wider spread throughout the community.
Although some 118,000 cases have been reported, in 114 countries, more than 90 per cent of those cases are clustered in just four countries: China, Italy, South Korea and Iran.
In two of those countries (China and South Korea) the numbers of new cases are, in the words of WHO, “significantly declining”. 81 countries have yet to report any COVID-19 cases and, in 57 countries, there have been only 10 or fewer cases reported.
However, there is still considerable concern that many countries are not acting quickly enough, or taking the urgent and aggressive action that the health agency says is required.
Even before the pandemic announcement, WHO was advocating a whole-of-government approach to dealing with the crisis, on the basis that every sector, not just the health sector, is affected.
Even countries in which the virus has spread throughout the community, or within large population clusters, can still turn the tide of the pandemic, said Tedros, adding that several nations have shown that the virus can be suppressed and controlled.
4) What should I do?
Whilst it is understandable to feel anxious about the outbreak, WHO emphasizes the fact that, if you are not in an area where COVID-19 is spreading, or have not travelled from an area where the virus is spreading, or have not been in contact with an infected patient, your risk of infection is low.
Nevertheless, we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves, and others.
Everyone should frequently wash their hands (and wash them thoroughly, with soap); maintain at least one metre distance from anyone coughing or sneezing, and avoid physical contact when greeting; avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth; cover the mouth and nose with a bent elbow or disposable tissue when coughing or sneezing; and stay home and seek medical attention from local health providers, if feeling unwell.
Whilst the virus infects people of all ages, there is evidence that older people (60 and over), and those with underlying health conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer), are at a higher risk.
People in these categories are being advised to take further measures, including ensuring that any visitors wash their hands, regularly cleaning and disinfecting home surfaces, and making a plan in preparation for an outbreak in their community.
WHO and other UN agencies have underlined the importance of solidarity, and avoiding stigmatizing community members in the face of the pandemic. “We’re in this together”, said Tedros on Wednesday, urging everyone to “do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable."
5) Where can I get reliable information?
The best place to get reliable information is the WHO Website, www.who.int. Here you can find comprehensive advice, including more on how to minimise the risk of spreading, or catching COVID-19.
The site is currently being updates on a daily basis, so check in regularly.
It is also advisable to check the official Website of your local and regional municipality, which may have specific health information, as well as news concerning your community, such as travel guidance, and outbreak hotspots.
WHO warns that a number of myths and scams are circulating online. Criminals have been taking advantage of the spread of the virus to steal money or sensitive information and, says WHO, if anyone is contacted by a person or organization claiming to be from the Organization, they should take steps to verify their authenticity.
The WHO site includes a “myth-buster” section, debunking some unsubstantiated theories that have been circulating online. For example, it is a myth that cold weather can kill the virus, that taking a hot bath or eating garlic can prevent infection, or that mosquitos can spread the virus. There is no evidence for any of these claims.