Explain Like I’m 65: “Global Health Crises”

Table of Contents:

  1. Endemic vs. Epidemic vs. Pandemic
  2. Staying Safe and Healthy

Some people act like they know it all. Our new series Explain Like I’m 65 is for the rest of us. It will provide clear, digestible summaries to help seniors sort through the noise and get the factual information they need. From political buzzwords to household how-tos, we’re here to provide accessible guides and informative answers.

This time around, we’re reflecting on the COVID-19 outbreak with a closer look at the terminology used to describe global health crises.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 has reached pandemic status. While Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says this will not change WHO’s efforts to combat the virus, he also makes it clear that infections and deaths will rise in the coming weeks.

What exactly makes a disease a pandemic?

Endemic vs. Epidemic vs. Pandemic

First, let’s clear up some of the confusion around terminology. While you might hear someone use the terms pandemic, epidemic, and endemic as synonyms, the terms are actually quite distinct.

In summary:


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  • Endemic is an adjective used to describe diseases that are constant threats within particular regions. For example, malaria is endemic to certain regions of Africa. More metaphorically, you could say that fraud and poor visibility are endemic across the global supply chain. A disease can also classify as hyperendemic if it is significantly more common in one region than in another. HIV, for example, is considered endemic in the United States and hyperendemic in parts of Africa.
  • The term epidemic is used when an infectious disease spreads across a particular community with an unexpected speed and severity. Epidemics are different from endemic diseases in the sense that they are considered temporary.
  • A pandemic is a particularly severe type of epidemic. While the term can describe diseases that have spread across an entire country or continent, health officials typically reserve it for diseases that have spread from one continent to another.

The terms epidemic and pandemic do not describe the severity of diseases. Rather, they refer to the speed at which a disease is spreading and the potential disruptions it could present.

So, why declare COVID-19 a pandemic? Declaring pandemic status raises international awareness about the spread of a disease and promotes collective action. It reminds both governments and citizens that they have a vital role to play.

How do groups like the World Health Organization classify diseases.
The distinctions between endemic diseases, epidemics, and pandemics.

Staying Safe and Healthy

WHO encourages nations around the globe to take swift, strategic action to both contain and mitigate the virus. While it’s too late for most countries to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, WHO officials have called on governments and individuals to help “flatten the curve.”

The virus presents a considerably greater risk to seniors than it does to most other age groups. As we grow older, our immune systems grow weaker and taking health precautions becomes all the more essential. WHO advises regular hand washing, good respiratory hygiene, and social distancing. Anyone who is symptomatic should stay home from work and, in general, individuals should avoid crowds as well as unnecessary trips out of the house. Many state and local governments have already closed non-essential businesses and more disruption is sure to come.

While there is no cure for the virus, these health and safety precautions should help lower both individual and community risks.

Seniors are advised not to panic, but should take COVID-19 seriously. As Tedros put it, “This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector — so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.” Read our guide to the virus to learn more about how you can stay healthy and stay in that fight.