WHO declares coronavirus outbreak a pandemic

Thursday March 12 2020


Tourists are screened at the Port of Mombasa, Kenya, on February 13, 2020 as a way of abating the spread of coronavirus. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

More by this Author

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday declared coronavirus a global pandemic.

The virus, which was first reported in China, has hit 114 countries.

Speaking during a media briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus labelled the new virus and its spread a pandemic.

Up until now, WHO officials had been reluctant to categorise the virus as a pandemic, arguing that such a declaration has major political and economic ramifications.

“There’s been so much attention on one word. Let me give you some other words that matter much more, and that are much more actionable: Prevention. Preparedness. Public health. Political leadership. And most of all, People,” said Dr Tedros.

According to the WHO boss, the organisation has been in full response mode since it was notified of the first cases in Wuhan, China, which has been under lockdown since mid-January.


“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time,” he noted while delivering his statement in Geneva.

“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus.

“It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do,” Dr Tedros said.

He, however, reiterated that the international health agency is warning countries to put in place urgent measures and aggressive action to mitigate the virus should it be detected in their territories.

“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” he said.

The WHO chief urged countries to activate and scale up emergency response mechanisms, communicate with people about the risks and how they can protect themselves, find, isolate, test and treat every Covid-19 case and trace every contact.

“I remind all countries that we are calling on you to ready your hospitals, protect and train your health workers. Let’s all look out for each other,” he said.

Declaring a pandemic is a rare event.

During the 20th Century, pandemics were declared only three times — the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, the Asian flu of 1957-1958, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968.

The last global pandemic was the swine flu in 2009, for which WHO received backlash over whether the outbreak should have been labelled a pandemic — the agency had lowered the threshold for what defines a pandemic shortly before the declaration.

The risk of global Covid-19 spread was classified as “very high,” the highest level in their risk classification scheme. 

Following the formal declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic, governments, agencies and aid organisations worldwide will now shift efforts from containment to mitigation.

The declaration has economic, political and societal impacts on a global scale.

According to WHO, a pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations. Pandemics, however, have nothing to do with the severity of a disease with its geographic spread.

Often times people use the terms epidemic and pandemic interchangeably, not realising that the two have distinct meanings. They also confuse the meaning of an outbreak. Simply put, the difference between these three scenarios of disease spread is a matter of scale, says Rebecca Fischer, an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Texas A&M University.

In her article published in The Conversation, Ms Fischer defines an outbreak as a noticeable, often small, increase over the expected number of cases.

An epidemic is defined as an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. An epidemic is bigger and spreading over a larger geographic area.

“When people in places outside of Wuhan began testing positive for infection with Covid-19, epidemiologists knew the outbreak was spreading, a likely sign that containment efforts were insufficient or came too late. This was not unexpected, given that no treatment or vaccine is yet available,” she notes.

Finally, she says, a pandemic is used to describe a disease that affects a whole country or the entire world. Unlike an outbreak and an epidemic, it is international and out of control.