COVID-19 is officially a pandemic, WHO says

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declares COVID-19 a pandemic at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: REUTERS / Li He / Xinhua / Latin America News Agency

NAIROBI — The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic Wednesday. This declaration comes more than two months after the identification of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, with more than 118,000 cases and nearly 4,300 deaths in 114 countries to date.

“It would be a mistake to abandon the containment strategy.”

— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO

This is the first coronavirus outbreak to receive that label.

“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 Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press conference.

Two weeks ago, there were fewer than 3,000 confirmed cases outside of China. Now, that figure stands at over 32,700. Additionally, the number of countries with cases of the virus has nearly tripled.

WHO rarely declares pandemics. The last one was declared in 2009 over the H1N1 virus, commonly known as the swine flu.

A key reason behind the declaration, according to Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, is that many countries have failed to adequately prepare for or respond to the spread of the virus. The pandemic declaration is a “call to action,” he said.

Shortcomings include inadequate surveillance systems. Some countries are behind on their testing strategies, Ryan said, and are still only testing a small proportion of their populations, such as people who are already showing symptoms, who are over a certain age, or who have recently traveled to China.

The geographical spread of the disease makes these efforts outdated, he said.

Additionally, some countries don’t have systems in place to stop transmission of the virus in hospitals. They have also communicated poorly with their populations, failed to communicate across government agencies and between national and provincial levels, and been too willing to give up on tracing the contacts of people who are confirmed to have the virus, he said.

Ryan declined to name countries, saying that “you know who you are.”

WHO has been hesitant to declare the outbreak a pandemic out of concern that countries might use it as a justification to abandon efforts to contain the spread of the virus and instead turn to focus on only mitigation — allowing the virus to spread unabated.

But other countries — including China, Singapore, and South Korea — have shown that aggressive containment measures can be effective at slowing the spread of the virus, WHO health experts said. During parts of February, China was reporting over 3,000 new cases per day. On Tuesday of this week, it reported only 20 new cases.

According to Tedros, 81 countries still have no confirmed cases, 57 countries have 10 or fewer cases, and 90% of the total number of cases globally are from four countries: China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran.

“It would be a mistake to abandon the containment strategy,” he said, adding that WHO believes this is the first pandemic the world can contain — unlike influenza pandemics, which cannot be contained.

Containment also helps prevent the spread of the virus from overwhelming national health systems, Ryan said.

“At the very least, it will flatten the curve and allow your health system to remain in control and achieve some success in reducing case fatality,” he said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.