Opinion: Are we facing a coronavirus epidemic or pandemic? | News | DW | 01.03.2020
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Opinion: Are we facing a coronavirus epidemic or pandemic?

Although the World Health Organization has warned that we could face a coronavirus pandemic, there is confusion over whether a global emergency is upon us. The UN body itself is partly to blame, says Fabian Schmidt.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last week raised the global coronavirus threat level to "very high," warning that a global outbreak of COVID-19 could be imminent.

But the UN body has yet to officially declare a pandemic — even though many people, including leading medical experts — have been pondering whether a fully global outbreak is nearly here. 

Why hasn't the WHO yet declared a full-scale pandemic until now? The reason, unknown to most of us, is because the Geneva-based institution reformed its six-tier threat level assessment which is used to classify the final stage as the "pandemic phase."  

New definition

The WHO issued its new highest threat level — a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — with regard to COVID-19 in late January.

That means it is now up to scientists and historians and not the UN health body to determine whether we are, or indeed were, confronted by a pandemic.

Fabian Schmidt

Fabian Schmidt works in DW's science department

So now, national, state-level and regional health care institutions must issue any further health warnings beyond the PHEIC threat level, should they so desire.

DW spoke to numerous doctors and health experts about the new WHO threat assessment system, all of whom were unaware of the changes. This goes to show that national and international health care bodies need to improve their crisis communication.

Desperate for reliable information

Getting your hands on reliable information about the COVID-19 outbreak is challenging. Some national health care authorities, just like journalists, find themselves hunting for trustworthy sources of information. A major state institution recently contacted DW to inquire how we had obtained figures about the global number of coronavirus infections and recoveries. Our answer: from a reputable US university.

It's a chaotic situation, with reliable data hard to come by. But complaining doesn't help. Instead, we should accept that with the rapid spread of COVID-19, information that was available yesterday is bound to be outdated today. And determining whether the spread of COVID-19 classifies as an epidemic, could potentially escalate into a pandemic, or already counts as such, is really just a matter of semantics.

The only thing that really matters at this stage is that doctors, health care staff, respective state departments as well as ordinary citizens take the right steps and act responsibly. 

For most of us, that means avoiding big events and regularly washing our hands. If we do notice flu- or cold-like symptoms, we should stay home instead of forcing ourselves to go to work.

And if symptoms persist, we should call our local physician to seek advice. Do not go there in person, as this could risk the virus spreading to the medical practice.

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