What declaring coronavirus as a pandemic means

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 11, 2020. The WHO said on Wednesday that the COVID-19 outbreak can be characterized as a “pandemic” as the virus spreads increasingly worldwide. Photo: Net

On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) upgraded the status of the COVID-19 outbreak from epidemic to pandemic.

WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a press conference that in the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries tripled.

 

He said there are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have lost their lives.

 

“In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” he said. “We have, therefore, made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

 

Pandemic is “not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” Dr. Tedros said.

It is a word that, if misused, he said, can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, hence leading to unnecessary suffering and death.

“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing and it doesn’t change what countries should do,” Dr. Tedros said.

Ida Jooste, Global Health Media Adviser, Internews, an international non-profit media development organisation, told The New Times that: “Because ‘pandemic’ is a new description, people may latch onto that news, but in many ways, there is no change.”

“There is no change, especially for a country like Rwanda, where the focus remains exactly the same - it’s another P-word, Prevention. It is important that in media stories and communication, we don’t derail from that P-word.”

5 things you should know about the COVID-19 pandemic

·What’s the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?

According to the UN, before Wednesday’s WHO announcement, the COVID-19 outbreak was described by the UN health agency as an epidemic, meaning that it has been spreading to many people and many communities, at the same time.

Labelling it a pandemic indicates that it has officially spread around the world and is also a reflection of the WHO's concern at what it calls the “alarming levels of the coronavirus spread, severity and inaction”, and the expectation that the number of cases, deaths and affected countries will continue to climb.

·Should I now be more worried about COVID-19?

It is further emphasised that calling the outbreak a pandemic does not mean that it has become more deadly, it is an acknowledgement of its global spread.

The WHO chief on Wednesday insisted that the pandemic label does not change their assessment of the threat posed by the virus: “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

·What should countries do?

According to Dr Tedros, of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 per cent of cases are in just four countries, and two of those – China and the Republic of Korea - have significantly declining epidemics. He noted that 81 countries have not reported any cases and 57 countries have reported 10 cases or less.

“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he said.

“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.”

“Even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can turn the tide on this virus. Several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled.”

The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission, Dr Tedros said, is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will. 

“All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.”

·What should people do?

The WHO is emphasizing the fact that, if you are not in an area where COVID-19 is spreading, or have not travelled from an area where the virus is spreading, or have not been in contact with an infected patient, your risk of infection is low.

Nevertheless, it says, we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves, and others.

Everyone should frequently wash their hands thoroughly, with soap; maintain at least one metre distance from anyone coughing or sneezing, and avoid physical contact when greeting; avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth; cover the mouth and nose with a bent elbow or disposable tissue when coughing or sneezing; and stay home and seek medical attention from local health providers, if feeling unwell.

People at a higher risk – older people (60 and over), and those with underlying health conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer) – are advised to take further measures. These measures include ensuring that any visitors wash their hands, regularly cleaning and disinfecting home surfaces, and making a plan in preparation for an outbreak in their community.

·Where can people get reliable information?

For reliable information, the WHO website, www.who.int which is being updates on a daily basis has much including comprehensive advice on how to minimise the risk of spreading, or catching COVID-19.

It is also advisable to check the official Website of the Ministry of Health and or the Rwanda Biomedical Centre and other government agencies which may have specific health information, as well as travel guidance, and outbreak hotspots.

The WHO warns that a number of myths and scams are circulating online.

It is noted that “criminals have been taking advantage of the spread of the virus to steal money or sensitive information” and, says if anyone is contacted by a person or organization claiming to be from the WHO, they should take steps to verify their authenticity.

The WHO site includes a “myth-buster” section, debunking some unsubstantiated theories that have been circulating online.

An extraordinary Cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame on Friday, March 6, 2020, reaffirmed a strengthened approach to contain the potential spread of the coronavirus—or COVID19—outbreak in the entire country.

Read also: COVID-19: Will Rwandans listen to reason, stop shaking hands, hugging?

Earlier, the Prime Minister's Office called on the public to avoid shaking hands and close body contact such as hugging; avoid unnecessary travels to countries affected by Coronavirus, and cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing in public. 

jkaruhanga@newtimesrwanda.com

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