It has now been two months since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the USA (January 20, 2020), and China placed the city of Wuhan under quarantine (January 23, 2020). At the time, the leading narrative was that this new disease would be like bird flu, monitored and ultimately contained. However, as we all know, we are in a very different situation now than we were two months ago, and we are struggling to make sense of it all. In fact, it was ten days ago today, on March 11, 2020, that World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.
This letter will be about COVID-19: Epidemic, Pandemic, or Infodemic?
Recently, New York Times columnist and international best-selling author Tom Friedman said this about COVID-19, “Manage what is unavoidable so we can avoid what is unmanageable.” I believe the FGN is doing precisely this --- they are providing updates daily, and learning how China, USA, Italy, and other countries have been managing this public health crisis. Nigeria has closed schools and universities earlier than other countries, and banned international flights from countries with high infection rates. They have also banned large gatherings, and advocated social distancing and self-isolation for anyone who feels he or she has potentially been exposed to or is showing the early signs of COVID-19. These measures will help contain COVID-19, and hopefully prevent it from spreading farther afield in Nigeria. COVID-19 is here, it is unavoidable that it will spread, and at this point in time, it is manageable if we all do the right thing and FGN continues to manage it and stay ahead of it. The fear, which is a legitimate one, is that if COVID-19 spreads widely in Nigeria, we will be in a situation that we cannot avoid and it will be unmanageable. If it spreads, it will become an unmanageable situation in Nigeria – the simple truth is that we are not set up to respond to a pandemic like this.
On January 30, 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 as “a public health emergency of international concern”. At this point in time, COVID-19 was referred to as an outbreak or “epidemic,” which means it was in the same category as Ebola, Zika, and SARS – terrible diseases, but affecting one geographic region, not the entire planet, but with the potential to become an international problem.
An epidemic refers to a sudden increase in the number of cases of a contagious disease within a group of people or within a geographic area, in a short period of time. COVID-19 infected hundreds of people simultaneously, spreading through Wuhan quickly, during the first few weeks of January, 2020. As people outside of Wuhan also tested positive for COVID-19, it was clear that the disease was now bigger than just an outbreak of a disease contained within a small location.
A pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread internationally, affecting a significant number of people, and occurs when either containment efforts fail or are implemented too late. The assumption is that during a pandemic, every person on the planet can potentially be exposed. Labeling COVID-19 as a pandemic signals to national governments and healthcare providers to move beyond containment and implement economic, and at times military, interventions to fight the disease. For example, US President Trump has signed emergency relief legislation, and invoked the Defense Protection Act, all aimed at using America’s resources to fight COVID-19 during this time of crisis.
A pandemic can also cause an infodemic, which means a sudden increase in the amount of information available about a current issue. In this case, the explosion of information about COVID-19 is reaching us through the news, social media, medical professionals, world leaders, local officials, and everyone having an opinion about whether COVID-19 is a serious problem or not. It is overwhelming, to the point that it paralyzes us from using our own critical thinking skills to assess all of the information coming at us in quick succession.
At a time like this, it is important to stay up to date and read widely on the topic, not become too attached to any one source of information. I use these two sources on a daily basis, as I find them both reliable and current, but I also read widely from various journalists, blogs, newsfeeds, etc.:
So, COVID-19 is now both a pandemic and an infodemic. We are in trouble.
Always, with best regards, stay safe, Semper Gumby
Dawn Dekle, PhD
AUN President (Vice-Chancellor)
Teaser: stay tuned for the next letter from the desk of the AUN President, on the topic “COVID-19: Myths and Conspiracy Theories?”