• covid-19 influenza

    The World Health Organization says it’s still too early to call the COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)

The World Health Organization says it’s still too early to call the COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic — but the potential for it to become so is not far away.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the virus can still be contained, a message he believes should give countries “hope, courage and confidence.”

“Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts,” says Ghebreyesus.

A pandemic as defined by the WHO means the worldwide spread of a new disease. For example, an influenza (flu) pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges and spreads around the world, and most people do not have immunity. Most past pandemics have originated from animal influenza viruses that made the jump to humans. 

In 2009, WHO declared a pandemic of Influenza A, otherwise known as H1N1. Declaring a pandemic is a reflection of the spread of a virus, not of the severity of illness caused by the virus. In 2009, more than 70 countries had reported cases of H1N1. 

WHO declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30. In China, more than 2,600 people have died from COVID-19. Outside China, there have been 23 deaths, and globally more than 79,000 reported cases of the virus. Ghebreyesus says the virus “absolutely” has pandemic potential, but we aren’t there yet.

Learning from the past

In 2018, Canadian Geographic launched Unmasking Influenza, a multimedia project commemorating the centenary of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic — likely the biggest global killing event of the 20th century.

The disease was remarkably lethal, taking the lives of young, healthy adults as well as the old and vulnerable, and troops returning from the battlefields of Europe quickly spread the flu to every corner of the Earth. But the Spanish Flu also laid the groundwork for our modern understanding of pandemics, how to prepare for them and how to contain them.

Worried about COVID-19? Check out some of the pandemic resources we created as part of Unmasking Influenza

A feature story on the impact and legacy of the Spanish Flu 

A documentary, Unmasking Influenza, which can be streamed for free via CPAC

A panel discussion with Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, and Esyllt Jones, a University of Manitoba history professor and author of a book on the Spanish Flu, hosted by Canadian Geographic contributing editor Alanna Mitchell

A series of videos looking at the realities of flu pandemics past and present, vaccinations, hand-washing and the exponential growth of viruses like the Spanish Flu

• Until April 1, the Unmasking Influenza travelling exhibition is on display at the Arnprior District Museum

Related: Tom Koch on disease mapping and medical geography