Need an expert? COVID-19: epidemic or pandemic?

Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The earth with a face mask

Members of the media may directly contact the following expert(s) :

Dr. Ronald Labonté (English only)

Distinguished Research Chair and Professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Labonté agreed to answer our questions:

1- What is a pandemic? 

“In many ways, it’s a matter of who is making the definition. ‘Epi’ in epidemic means upon ‘demos’ (the people). ‘Pan’ means ‘all’, as in pandemic (all the people). An epidemic is considered to be a disease that is widespread within a limited (geographical) population. A pandemic is essentially an epidemic that has spread to, and thence within, many countries. Use of pandemic today is generally confined to novel diseases that can, and to some extent have begun to, affect people at a global scale.”

2- Why is the coronavirus outbreak not yet considered a pandemic?

 “This is as much a political as a medico-technical question. COVID-19 has spread to several countries now, with epidemic outbreaks (significant numbers) in at least three other nations: South Korea, Iran, and Italy. For some infectious disease experts, this might be enough to declare it a pandemic.

The political risk, and the fine line that WHO (World Health Organization) is trying to walk on this issue, is that there are real health, economic, and political risks in declaring it a pandemic. The fear that this might arouse could cause more health damage than the disease itself, at least in its present spread or reach. Rather, and probably very tactfully, WHO and health authorities in many countries are hinting that it could soon become pandemic – a way of getting people used to the idea without suddenly causing panic.”

3- What will it change for the general population if it becomes a pandemic? What should people know?

 “Little would change for most of us if it is officially declared a pandemic. However it is described, what is important for most of us is to appreciate that, to the extent we know of the disease at the moment, the risk for most of us, and especially those of us in Canada, will remain low.

The economic fallout of the disease will inevitably affect us more than the disease itself, in terms of affecting price or availability of some goods.

Travel may be curtailed if certain ‘hotspots’ arise in certain countries, or areas of certain countries. Public health officials will monitor the unfolding movement of the disease, its case and case-fatality rates, and issue travel advisories accordingly. If or as the virus established a strong presence in the country, which appears unlikely at the moment, Canadians at greatest risk will be those most vulnerable to other respiratory diseases : the elderly, the very young, the frail, and, of course, health workers tending those who contract the virus.

Prudent public health measures we should all be practicing are still the best preventive actions : washing hands carefully with soap and water, avoiding touching our face if hands are dirty, avoiding close contact with others if we come down with a respiratory illness, wearing a face mask if we do when we go to a clinic to have our condition assessed (something medical offices always ask us to do anyway).

And I would say not to panic, not to hoard, not to blame. We should practice generous civility in our everyday social encounters with others.”

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