If you’re read, seen, or listened to virtually any news over the course of the last month, you’re no doubt familiar with today’s word. In fact, you’ve likely heard it more times than you care to remember. Other than possibly being a dog whistle for hand washing, sanitizer using, and facemasks; for a word that has become so recently common, there seems to be quite a discrepancy about what it actually means. So, what is a pandemic; moreover, what makes a pandemic different from an epidemic or an outbreak?
Originating from the Greek pandemos, from the suffix pan (meaning ‘all’) and the root term demos (meaning ‘people’), pandemic first arrived in English through Gideon Harvey’s 1666 work, Morbus Anglicus, or The Anatomy of Consumptions, where, defining the term as a disease spread over a very large area or affecting a large portion of a population, he writes that: “Some [diseases] do more generally haunt a Country..whence such diseases are termed Endemic or Pandemic.”
While our term has become almost exclusively used in relation to disease – even being used as a noun itself – there have also been some instances of the term being used in its more literal, general sense, such as A.D.T. Whitney’s The Other Girls (1873), which simply uses the term to mean ‘universal or widespread’ (“It is absolutely exceptional; it will never be pandemic.”), and in the Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, translating Plato’s Banquet/Symposium from 1822, takes the word to mean ‘a physical or sensual love’ (“That Pandemic lover who loves rather the body than the soul is worthless.”).
For a word so closely linked to disease, what exactly constitutes a pandemic? In general terms, as opposed to a small spike in cases of a disease in a small area (outbreak) or an outbreak that is spreading over a larger geographic area (epidemic), a pandemic is generally considered to be an epidemic that has spread to multiple countries and regions and is out of control. In a more technical sense though, the World Health Organization defines the beginning of a pandemic (Phase 5) as: “The same identified virus has caused sustained community-level outbreaks in at least two countries in one WHO region.”, whereas the Center for Disease Control uses 3 criteria: severe illness potentially resulting in death; sustained person-to-person infection; and worldwide spreading of the virus.
Even though many have been calling Coronavirus a pandemic for the last month, the WHO labelled it a pandemic only yesterday (March 11th) based on the number of cases outside China having increased 13-fold over the past two weeks and the nearly 120,000 cases reported in over 110 territories around the world (of course, looking at certified pandemics, such as the Spanish flu, tuberculosis, smallpox, yellow fever, measles, typhus, and HIV/AIDS, which have all singularly yielded untold suffering and death, maybe it’s best that, given the term’s implications, medical authorities are somewhat more hesitant to use the term than the media).
Speaking during a press conference in Geneva yesterday, the WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. 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.”