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What Happens When There Is A Pandemic? | CORONAVIRUS

The first world war
was among the deadliest conflicts in history and killed
more than 20 million people. But an outbreak of flu that began as the war
ended, turned out to be far more destructive. It was known as the Spanish Influenza, and
infected one in three humans on earth. It was the worst pandemic
in modern history and claimed the lives of between
50 and 100 million people. Now, as a new strain of coronavirus spreads
across the world, when does a disease become a pandemic and if it
does, what happens next? Disease experts use the term ‘pandemic’
when a new infection spreads to multiple countries and continents at the same
time, affecting many people. That’s different from another term, epidemic,
which describes an infection outbreak that’s larger than usual, but stays confined
to a single location or region. So when does a disease
officially become a pandemic? The World Health Organization is the body
that decides when an infectious disease formally becomes a pandemic, but that
choice is not always black and white. The group’s director-general says the WHO
assesses whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ by evaluating
three things. First is the geographical
spread of the virus. Second is the severity of the disease
caused by the virus and lastly, the societal impact
of the disease. A disease is more likely to become a pandemic
if it is caused by a new strain of a virus, as is the case with Coronavirus
Disease 2019 or COVID-19. The ease with which it infects people and
spreads from person to person also play a role in the
designation. Past pandemic outbreaks have typically originated from animal viruses, before
crossing over to humans. These can spread rapidly around the world
because people do not have the immunity needed to fight the
new infection. COVID-19 was declared
a pandemic in March 2020, the sixth pandemic declared
in about a century. The 1918 Spanish flu was easily the deadliest
flu pandemic of the 20th century, killing tens of millions
of people. The Asian flu outbreak followed in 1957, killing
roughly 1.1 million people around the world. Thankfully scientists were able
to develop a vaccine quickly, effectively containing
its spread. Another influenza outbreak – the Hong Kong
flu – started to spread from China in 1968. It was caused by a compound virus,
which combined the Asian virus from ten years earlier
with a form of bird flu. It killed around 1 million people
– most of them older than 65. HIV, which was first identified
as the virus behind AIDS in 1983, was also considered
a pandemic. The human immunodeficiency virus severely
damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight
everyday infections and disease. In the past 40 years, it’s killed 35 million
people worldwide, about half of the people who were infected
by the virus. Then in 2009, a new outbreak, initially called
the swine flu, was named a pandemic. It infected nearly 61 million people,
and experts estimate it killed up to 575,000
people in a single year. The WHO declared the pandemic over in August
2010, but the virus has continued to circulate as a seasonal
flu ever since. In recent years, the WHO has changed how it
decides whether an outbreak constitutes a pandemic, following criticism that the threat
of the 2009 swine flu had been exaggerated. Many governments stockpiled vaccines which
ultimately went unused, while pharmaceutical companies profiteered
from the ensuing panic. The disease turned out to be
milder than was originally thought. Since then, the WHO has released
a guide to manage flu pandemics at a national and
international level. According to its pandemic preparedness plan,
national governments are required to follow specific protocols – if a pandemic is declared
– to prevent or reduce the spread of a virus. For instance, authorities at a
regional and local level must fully mobilize health systems,
hospitals and medical workers. In addition, healthcare providers must plan
for a surge in patients, and offer protective equipment to
their workforce. Governments must also limit social
interaction, initiate quarantine measures and enforce
isolation procedures. Upgrading a disease to a pandemic outbreak
also has psychological implications for how we think about
a disaster. According to the WHO ‘using the word pandemic
carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying
unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma.’ Six months before the latest coronavirus outbreak,
a WHO report noted that “many countries still lack a national pandemic
influenza preparedness plan.” So what are the economic
costs of a pandemic? A previous coronavirus strain called Sars,
which was detected in 2002, wasn’t widespread enough to become
a pandemic. While it only infected
more than 8,000 people, it still cost the global economy
more than $50 billion in 2003. You see, advances in
medicine, communication and technology have brought
down mortality rates. But greater trade flows and
cheaper air travel have seen the world economy become ever more interconnected and that causes the costs of a pandemic to rise. A report now estimates that a pandemic
will cost $570 billion a year. That represents 0.7% of the
world’s total income. A pandemic can overwhelm
global health systems. It can also force infected individuals
to avoid the office or work less productively. The fear of infection spread
forces people to stay apart. And that can be even more
debilitating… shutting down schools, businesses and
public services. Insurance companies must also
watch developments closely. A pandemic can mean
more travel claims, more hospital claims and choke
up global supply chains. The impact on corporate
earnings can then cascade into financial
markets all around the world.