Coronavirus: How is a ‘pandemic’ different from an ‘epidemic’? Explained

The World Health Organization (WHO) characterised the coronavirus outbreak as a “pandemic”. The declaration came as the coronavirus cases are sharply increasing around the world.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The WHO chief, however, maintained that the designation of the coronavirus as a pandemic did not mean the situation was hopeless. “All countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he said.

Addressing a news conference on Wednesday, the WHO chief urged the global community to redouble efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak, saying aggressive measures could still play a big role to curb it.

What is a “pandemic”?

A pandemic is a worldwide spread of a disease or an infection. The term is associated with the geographic spread and not any characteristic changes in the infection itself.

WHO officials have signalled for weeks that they may use “pandemic” as a descriptive term but added that it does not carry any legal significance. The WHO no longer has a category for declaring a pandemic, except for influenza. The novel coronavirus is not the flu.

However, the term should not be confused with an outbreak and an epidemic.

Difference between “pandemic” and “epidemic”

Epidemic comparatively affects fewer number of people and is confined to a certain region. An outbreak is usually the first stages of an epidemic. An epidemic affects a region or a country and starts infecting a large part of the population.

The word epidemic originates from the Greek word ‘epidemia’ while the word pandemic originates from the word ‘pandemos’, which denotes “all people”.

The ebola spread was an epidemic that affected western Africa and resulted in the deaths of thousands over some years. The SARS outbreak in China was also an epidemic that killed over 800 people.

A pandemic is when a disease rapidly starts spreading across the world and is no longer restricted to a community or region.

The world has seen a number of pandemics in the past involving diseases such as plague, influenza, yellow fever and others. The latest pandemic is the first caused by coronavirus.