EXPLAINER | Why Covid-19 is called a pandemic and why it’s not just the typical flu

(Binnur Ege Gurun Kocak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
(Binnur Ege Gurun Kocak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
  • The WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March, but this refers to the extent of the spread of the disease and not necessarily its severity.  
  • So far, more than 550 000 people have died and more than 12 million cases have been recorded. 
  • This is why Covid-19 has been described as a pandemic and why it is not like the typical flu.  

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

But WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the declaration does not change how the organisation will deal with the threat the virus poses. 

"It doesn't change what WHO is doing and it doesn't change what countries should do."

It was estimated that, as of Thursday, there were more than 12 million cases of Covid-19 globally, resulting in more than 550 000 deaths. 

But why has Covid-19 been described as a pandemic and why it is not like the typical flu?

News24 takes a look

Why is Covid-19 a pandemic? 

Announcing the declaration in March, Ghebreyesus said the WHO did not use the word pandemic lightly or carelessly because if it was misused, it would lead to unreasonable fear. 

Up to that point, Covid-19 was described as an epidemic. An epidemic is the high spread of a disease within a specific community or area, and a pandemic refers to the global spread of a new disease.

At the start of the outbreak, Covid-19 was mostly confined to China and it was therefore referred to as an epidemic, but as it spread to more and more regions, it became a pandemic. 

Pandemic, therefore, refers to the reach of, specifically, a new virus, and not necessarily the intensity of it. 

The WHO has not defined exactly what the threshold is for a pandemic declaration. 

The United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the word pandemic is used when viruses "are able to infect people easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way" in various places around the world.

Why is Covid-19 not like the typical flu? 

While the symptoms of Covid-19 appear similar to the seasonal flu, the diseases differ in key areas which makes the new coronavirus deadly.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and other sources, these include that, among others:  

  • Covid-19 is new to humans, and therefore very few people will have immunity against it. There is also no vaccine for Covid-19 available for it yet. Many people, in comparison, have some sort of immunity for seasonal flu and there are various vaccines for different strains of seasonal flu.
  • Covid-19 is also considered to be twice as contagious as the seasonal flu.
  • It takes between five to twelve days to show Covid-19 symptoms during which time an individual may still be contagious. An individual may also be infectious 10 days after showing symptoms. In contrast, the seasonal flu typically takes only two days to show symptoms
  • If someone becomes infected with Covid-19, they will also likely be sick for roughly 14 days, compared to the seasonal flu's average duration of five days
  • The fatality rate for Covid-19 is 10 times that of the seasonal flu. This figure is, however, fluctuating daily as more people are infected. In some countries, daily deaths have reached rates 50% or higher than the historical average for periods of time.
  • Since people require hospitalisation at the same time because it is a new disease, healthcare systems may become overwhelmed and this may lead to more deaths when patients do not receive the care they require.
  • While the elderly, and those with comorbidities are most at risk, some schoolgoing children have been affected by multisystem inflammatory syndrome - a rare but severe complication of Covid-19.
  • Covid-19 complications also include blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart and legs, which are not a seasonal flu complication. 

Those who have been infected with Covid-19 also report long-term effects, such as joint pains, tiredness, a persistent cough and confusion.

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