What's in a word?

Coronavirus: What a “pandemic status” for COVID-19 means for you

Here's why an accurate classification of COVID-19 matters.

The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus — officially dubbed COVID-19 — is reported to be on the brink of being declared a pandemic, with more than 79,000 people worldwide infected.

But, colloquially, the word “pandemic” is often used without any real awareness of its official definition, and people can attach connotations to the term beyond its basic meaning. Its use may often stir frenzied hysteria and spark undue panic. So what actually qualifies as a pandemic?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. In order for COVID-19 to earn the designation of a pandemic, it must spread generally in a population outside China, its country of origin. This means we must see sustained community-level outbreaks in multiple parts of the world — which hasn’t occurred just yet.

But things are escalating rapidly: New, increasingly widespread outbreaks in South Korea, Iran, and Italy have become a serious cause for concern. There have now been over 2,000 cases recorded outside of China, in 28 countries.

There is a hierarchy to disease classification, and a pandemic status trumps the lot. Though often used interchangeably, a pandemic is not the same as an epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines an epidemic as an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area. A disease only becomes a pandemic when it has spread over several countries or continents, and has affected a large number of people.

Why the word "pandemic" matters

Some of the most notorious pandemics in history include the 2009 swine flu outbreak and the on-going HIV pandemic. One of the arguably worst pandemics of all time was the Black Death — the 14th-century plague which is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people. The case that most closely mirrors that of COVID-19 is the 2002 SARS outbreak, a pandemic that also originated in China and was also a type of coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the WHO was on the receiving end of harsh criticism for their decision to declare the 2009 spread of swine flu a pandemic: It was argued that it engendered unnecessary fear for an outbreak that caused much less devastation than had been initially predicted.

An Italian finance guard works at a check-point in Zorlesco, an Italian town in the red zone of a COVID-19 outbreak.Getty Images

A disease pandemic has repercussions beyond just what it means for your wellbeing. Watching the unfolding of the outbreak with eagle eyes may not be who you would expect: Wall Street. Global stock markets are experiencing a steep decline, as the economic disruption in China triggers much wider implications for the whole world. The markets in Europe recorded their worst day since 2016 on Monday, February 24. The stock market index Dow Jones Industrial Average saw a drop of almost 1000 points. Oil prices have plummeted. These drops are tied to the increasing use of "pandemic" in reference to COVID-19.

(On the flip side, it has only been good news for gold: The price of gold has reached its highest level since January of 2013, after seeing an increase of more than 2 percent; this skyrocket rise is due to gold being regarded as a reliable store of value in times of financial and political dubiousness.)

COVID19’s pandemic status may be eminent. Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, recently warned that “it is time to do everything you would do in preparing for a pandemic”.

Sill, WHO cautions against using the term just yet. “The sudden increase in new COVID-19 cases is certainly very concerning,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday. “I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear. Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.”

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