What’s in a name? Does it matter whether we call the COVID-19 outbreak a “pandemic”?
To declare that an outbreak is a pandemic is like setting off a fire alarm. It alerts people that something serious is about to happen. It alerts community health services, and the community at large, about the importance of preparing for widespread infection and sickness.
The word “pandemic” is emotionally laden. It evokes images of the 1918 Spanish flu; images of hospital wards filled with sickbeds, and images of bodies piled in the streets. The declaration of a pandemic will increase public anxiety, at least in the short term.
Pandemics are evolving situations. People’s reactions will change as the pandemic progresses.
At the moment, for most people in most countries, there are only a relatively small number of cases. For healthy people in these countries the pandemic will seem abstract and far away. The reality of the pandemic won’t sink in until there is widespread infection throughout major cities throughout the world. Then there will be more anxiety.
In the short term, if infection continues to spread worldwide, we can expect to see more anxiety and xenophobia, but anxiety and racism should diminish as people begin to adapt to the “new normal.” People are resilient; they will learn to cope with widespread infection and whatever that brings. And the racism should abate. It will no longer be a “Chinese” virus; it will become a virus that affects all of us equally. The decline in infection-related racism might be the only good thing that comes out of global spread of COVID-19.