Why WHO might never declare COVID-19 as pandemic

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 03 2020 08:34 PM

Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Country Representative speaks to media at The World Health Organization (WHO) office at the Department Of Health (DOH) headquarters in Manila. February 12, 2020 Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — With more than 60 countries affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), people are bracing for a possible pandemic.

But, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s a term that they might never actually use. A pandemic is commonly used to describe the uncontrolled spread of a disease worldwide.

Currently, the COVID-19 health event is considered a “public health emergency of international concern” by the WHO and its member states.

A few days ago, the international body raised its risk assessment of COVID-19 to “very high.” According to Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO representative to the Philippines, that is already the highest level of alert. 

“This is the very first health event that WHO has ever classified as internationally globally very high risk,” he said.

And that’s where the classification might stop, even if the situation is still a bit far from what might be a worst-case scenario — a pandemic.

“WHO has stopped using the pandemic classification, based on our experiences of 2009. So, what we are doing now is, we have highlighted and classified this as a public health emergency of international concern,” Abeyasinghe said.

Apparently, the WHO no longer uses the term “pandemic” after the 2009 H1N1 or swine flu pandemic. 

“We have seen, experienced, (that) if we start talking pandemic, it creates a lot of fear and panic,” the WHO official said. “What is more necessary now is evidence-based actions. And that’s what we’re advocating for.”

While it no longer uses a “pandemic classification,” the WHO has repeatedly said that the current COVID-19 situation is still controllable, especially since only few countries have widespread cases of the disease.

Instead of pandemic, the WHO official prefers to use the term “community-wide transmission.” Although, it has also been used to refer to uncontrolled spread of the disease within countries.

“If we were to witness a scenario, there was transmission that is not in a clear geographical area that cannot be contained. That’s (what) we mean by community-wide transmission,” Abeyasinghe said.

He said the cluster of cases in “clear geographical areas” is a sign that the disease can still be contained.

“The positive evidence in many countries, including here in the Philippines, which our director general has acknowledged, (is) that countries implementing good containment measures can contain and reverse the trend of this disease,” he said.

While the WHO is encouraging countries to invest in containment measures, they are also preparing nations for possible “community-wide transmission.” Such measures include preparedness in cities outside the capital.

As of Tuesday evening, there are more than 90,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,100-related deaths worldwide. Most of the cases are in China, specifically in Wuhan. Outside China, the countries with the most number of confirmed cases are South Korea with 4,812 cases, Italy with 2,036 cases and Iran with 1,501 cases.