WHO labels COVID-19 a pandemic, the first-ever caused by a coronavirus, urges countries to 'turn the tide'

WHO labels COVID-19 a pandemic, the first-ever caused by a coronavirus, urges countries to 'turn the tide'
(AP Photo)

COVID-19 is now a pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced it on March 11 and said it is the first coronavirus to be labeled as a pandemic.

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have, therefore, made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” said WHO Director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during a media briefing.

He added, "We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time.”

Explaining further, Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said that the characterization (as a pandemic) is the current description of a situation, and the objective is to trigger more intensive or aggressive action by countries to fight the disease.

The deadly virus has so far killed 4,373, and at least 121,564 have fallen sick globally. 

“In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside the Flag of China has increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals. In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus. 

The WHO emphasized that pandemic is not a word that should be used 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,” warned Dr. Ghebreyesus.

According to the WHO, describing the situation as a pandemic also does not change its assessment of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. It does not change what the WHO is doing, and it does not change what countries should do, said the WHO experts.

“WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases. We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus. 


People queue in a line for the virus test outside of the Korea Building where its call center is located in Seoul, South Korea. (Park Min-suk/Newsis via AP)

On March 9, the WHO had cautioned that now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become “very real.” 

The agency had said that different countries are in different scenarios and so need a tailored response. 

"As I said on Monday, just looking at the number of COVID-19 cases and the number of countries affected does not tell the full story. Of the 118,000 COVID-19 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90% of cases are in just four countries, and two of those – Flag of China and Flag of South Korea - have significantly declining epidemics,” said the WHO chief.

He emphasized that 81 countries have not reported any COVID-19 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. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of COVID-19 cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission," said Dr. Ghebreyesus.


The experts said that even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can “turn the tide.” 

Stating that several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled, the WHO said the challenge for many countries -- who are now dealing with large COVID-19 clusters or community transmission -- “is not whether they can do the same, it’s whether they will.”

“This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector – so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight. Countries must take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach, built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimize impact,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus.


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