WHO labels coronavirus a 'pandemic' as Europe scrambles to contain it

Organisation claim the global spread and severity of the illness was due to "alarming levels of inaction"

Photo: AFP World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

In a press conference Wednesday in Geneva, the World Health Organization officially called the novel coronavirus that has swept the world, infecting more than 120,000 people in more than 100 countries, a pandemic. It is the first time the head of the UN's top health body characterises the outbreak this way, in a warning against rising global spread and severity of the potentially deadly respiratory ailment.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that Covid-19 can be characterised by “pandemic,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared, adding it is the first pandemic caused by coronavirus,

He also went on to argue that the designation did not mean the situation was hopeless: 

“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: All countries can still change the course of this pandemic," Tedros insisted.

This declaration came as Europe is struggling with a mounting number of cases - including a slew of new countries clocking first deaths, which already prompted several governments to roll out increasingly tough containment efforts to slow the rapid spread of the virus. Italy was the one to introduce the toughest restrictions, locking down its entire population and warning the world that they were running out of ICU capacity. And while experts warned many other countries were on track for large outbreaks and health care capacity issues, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany said that 60% to 70% of Germans could become infected, as well. Meanwhile, identified cases doubled in the US in the space of just two days.

The rapid spread of the virus in more countries likely contributed to the WHO’s decision to declare the disease a pandemic. For weeks, the organisation had held off, observing that 90% of all cases were in mainland China and that most countries had reported only a few cases. But in recent days, that’s become increasingly untrue. Up to this date, the number of cases across the globe has risen to more than 124,000 with 4,500 deaths. Of these, there are more than 40,000 cases outside mainland China, or 33% of all cases, with substantial community transmission declared in countries including Iran, Italy, and the United States in particular. Signs of an even more widening European crisis emerged Wednesday, with Ireland, Albania, Belgium, Sweden, and Bulgaria registering their first deaths, while Italy clocked more than 2,300 new cases in the last 24 hours and infections in Spain jumped by a quarter to more than 2,100.

“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,” the director-general said.

Offering a sliver of hope to the rest of the world, China again announced negligible new daily infections and only a relatively small number of deaths. Some businesses in China's Hubei province - where the virus was first detected in December - were told they could restart work, reducing fears of a prolonged disruption of supply chains. But China remains the worst-affected country with more than 80,000 confirmed cases and over 3,000 deaths.

Still, what does WHO's declaration of pandemic mean?

First of all, it is important to know what an epidemic is. The World Health Organisation defines the term as “the occurrence in a community or region of cases of an illness ... clearly in excess of normal expectancy.” The CDC defines it as “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected” in a region. As an example, we can give several recent deadly outbreaks, including the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Zika virus outbreak in 2016 and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. All three of those outbreaks were deemed to be international emergencies.

Pandemic, on the other hand, is something more complicated. According to the Dictionary of Epidemiology, the standard reference for epidemiologists, a pandemic is “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” A “pandemic” disease sounds much scarier than a mere “outbreak.” But it’s very important to be said that “pandemic” refers to how many parts of the world are dealing with an elevated rate of the disease - and, in theory, says nothing about how serious the disease is.

It is also important to mention that it is not the first time that the organisation dubs an outbreak a pandemic since the beginning of the decade - the last declared pandemic was the H1N1 "swine flu" in 2009. That year the H1N1 influenza virus killed more than 18,000 people in more than 214 countries and territories, according to the WHO. In recent years, other estimates have put H1N1's toll even higher. An 2013 analysis, for example, says the real toll was 10 times higher - up to 203,000 deaths. And maybe it was twice that, if people who died of things like heart attacks precipitated by the flu are being counted.

To prevent such outcome during the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer if a sink isn't available. The World Health Organisation, in the meantime, says people should wear face masks only if they're sick or caring for someone who is.

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