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After weeks of monitoring and debate, the World Health Organization has formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic. While the organization was previously holding out hope that the infection might be more successfully contained, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, told reporters, “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.” So what does the term pandemic mean?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that the term is used only sparingly. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” said Tedros. “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.”
In dictionary terms, pandemic means an infection or disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. As of the WHO announcement, there were more than 118,000 cases of coronavirus in 114 countries worldwide, and 4,291 people have died.
Recent pandemics include the 2009 H1N1 flu, and the 1918 flu, to which the coronavirus has sometimes been compared. The 1918 flu killed tens of millions of people. A congressional doctor recently told staffers in Washington, D.C., that he expects 75 million to 150 million people in the United States to become infected with the coronavirus. This does not mean 75 million to 150 million people will die, but it does mean that failing to act now will lead to an extraordinary number of deaths.
“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” said Tedros in his remarks. “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of #COVID19 cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.”