WHO declares new coronavirus a pandemic as cases keep rising globally

12, Mar. 2020

GENEVA, Kyodo - The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the spread of the new coronavirus originating from China a pandemic, as the disease has already impacted daily life around the world with a total of nearly 120,000 people in about 110 countries having been infected.

Noting that the organization is "deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity," WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus said, "We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic," referring to the official name of the disease.

The number of coronavirus cases has exceeded 118,000 globally, resulting in nearly 4,300 deaths.

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"Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly," Tedros told a press briefing. "It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death."

The declaration of a pandemic, which trails a broad consensus among experts that the criteria had been met, signals that the WHO has apparently shifted its position that the coronavirus can be contained with appropriate steps and international coordination within a limited timeframe.

As the WHO hesitated to call the rapid spread of the coronavirus a pandemic, the world economy has already begun to reel from the impacts and global financial markets have been in chaos.

Some observers criticize the WHO chief for ongoing remarks that appear favorable to China, the country at the epicenter of the virus. Tedros visited the country and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year.

Many countries are imposing or planning to impose travel bans or restrictions to and from countries hit hard by the coronavirus, taking a toll on global tourism and businesses.

"This is not just a health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector -- so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight," Tedros said, adding that "All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights."

On the other hand, he indicated that despite the rapid spread of the virus around the globe, only a limited number of countries have been severely affected.

More than 90 percent of all coronavirus cases so far have been concentrated in just four countries, the WHO chief said, urging that "All countries can still change the course of this pandemic."

"If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission," he added.

China, which accounts for the bulk of the cases, along with Italy, Iran and South Korea are the countries hit hardest so far in terms of numbers of infection cases.

With the pandemic declaration, the WHO may put greater emphasis on the development of vaccines for the coronavirus and treatment of patients rather than efforts to contain it.

In late February, the WHO had raised its global risk assessment over the coronavirus to the highest level, but stopped short of declaring it a pandemic, saying there was still a chance of containing the disease.

Although Tedros had repeatedly said that the coronavirus could be contained with the right steps and international cooperation, the number of countries and people affected by the virus has continued to rise.

The numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths have far exceeded those of the 2002-2003 SARS coronavirus that sickened 8,098 people and claimed the lives of 774 globally.

As the impact of the pneumonia-causing disease has begun to be felt in many countries outside China, the WHO on Jan. 30 called the outbreak of the coronavirus a global emergency, saying the situation constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or PHEIC.