On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, specifying that framing the situation as a pandemic doesn’t change their assessment of the virus or impact their overall response plan.
“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said WHO director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who added there are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives to the disease. But as countries all over the world shift into a pandemic response plan, one question remains: now what?
A pandemic is declared when an infectious or prevalent disease spreads globally. This differs from an epidemic, in which the widespread outbreak is unique to a single country or community at a particular time.
According to the organization’s pandemic preparedness plan, stopping COVID-19 requires a national government approach that involves “full mobilization of health systems, facilities, and workers at national and sub-national levels” to distribute personal protective equipment, as well as antivirals and other medical supplies.
“If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission,” Tedros said.
“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.”
Don’t expect too much to change
Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said not to expect much to change now that a pandemic’s been declared. He said that many countries like Canada and Italy, for example, have already been treating the outbreak like a pandemic.
In Canada, hospitals have already begun screening for COVID-19 and increasing the amount of signage and messaging in emergency centres. The Canadian government recently introduced a $1-billion response fund to help contain the coronavirus outbreak, and has been stockpiling personal protective equipment and supplies.
Larger cities in China, like Beijing and Hong Kong, have been locked down since January.
“WHO has been really concerned that as soon as they use that word that people throw up their hands and give up hope,” Furness said, adding that in stoking fears over calling the pandemic, the WHO may have unintentionally caused more alarm than necessary.
“There’s a feeling that things just got worse but actually, things are just the same as it was yesterday.”
Furness said WHO has the biggest impact in the global south, in countries where there is not a strong public health infrastructure.
“What the WHO does and says isn’t going to have a big impact here… it’s going to be there,” he said.
Pandemics are not declared to incite panic
Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association said the psychology behind declaring a pandemic grade is to motivate “public health response from a global response.”
“When we use terms like this, it is likely to spike some additional anxiety in individuals, and particularly in those who don’t necessarily know what the term means. So most of us aren’t really familiar with the nuances of the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic,” she said.
Based on a person’s degree of tolerance or intolerance of uncertainty, Wright said a person may be more or less likely to behave based on fear. People who show an intolerance to uncertainty, for example, may be more likely to clog up hospital waiting rooms with non-emergency requests or avoid health care facilities at all costs.
Coming into a pandemic alert, Wright said to expect that “it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” and try to build better habits.
“From the perspective of the individual, we need to continue to engage in the smart behaviours that hopefully people are doing while also managing one’s anxiety,” she said.
Concerned about COVID-19? Here are some things to know:
Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing – very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.