Coronavirus: What is a pandemic and what does it mean for New Zealand?

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak has been officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

There are more than 122,000 confirmed cases worldwide with more than 4500 deaths. The virus has found a foothold on every continent except Antarctica, infecting 118 countries, areas or territories.

China, Italy and Iran are suffering the most severe outbreaks, with 80,921, 12,462 and 9000 confirmed cases respectively. South Korea is battling 7755 cases, while France, Spain and Germany each have diagnosed more than 1500 people.

"We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic," WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a media briefing on Thursday (NZ time).

"This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. We have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time. 

"We cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough - all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. We're in this together to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It's doable."

What is a pandemic and when is it declared?

'Pandemic' is used to describe a concerning geographic spread of a disease, in which the illness affects multiple continents or the world. It describes a disease to which people are not immune, spreading globally and beyond expectations. 

Declaring a pandemic does not mean the characteristics of the disease have changed. 

Conversely, an epidemic characterises a sudden, rapid spread of a disease which is typically far more localised and affects a specific country, region or community. 

A pandemic does not have to meet a certain threshold of cases, deaths or affected countries. The WHO makes the ultimate decision as to whether a disease meets the conditions of a pandemic.

A pandemic does not automatically mean the disease is more deadly or severe than any other. 

In this instance, the symptoms of COVID-19 (a dry cough, fever and shortness of breath) can be quite mild and the majority of patients will recover within a week. Although there is no vaccine, medical care can effectively treat most of the symptoms.

The last pandemic was declared in 2009 following the H1N1 flu outbreak, which killed hundreds of people worldwide.

Now COVID-19 is a pandemic, how will it be treated?

The WHO has reiterated that declaring a pandemic does not change its advice for preventing and treating the disease. 

Countries with COVID-19 cases are still urged to "detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people".

The use of the term does signal that countries should prioritise cooperation, unity and an open discourse with one another, according to Dr Natalie MacDermott, a King's College London academic clinical lecturer at the National Institute for Health Research. 

"The change of term does not alter anything practically, as the world has been advised for the last few weeks to prepare for a potential pandemic," she told The Guardian

"However, [it] highlights the importance of countries... coming together as a united front in our efforts to bring this situation under control."

What does a pandemic declaration mean for New Zealand? 

As aforementioned, the announcement of a pandemic does not necessarily change official advice on handling an outbreak.

The current advice from the Government is for New Zealanders to maintain good hand hygiene, practice coughing and sneezing etiquette, avoid close contact with people suffering acute respiratory infections and report any potential symptoms to a GP or Healthline via a phone call. 

The likelihood of a widespread outbreak remains low to moderate, according to the Ministry of Health.

Dr Tedros reiterated that detecting, testing, treating, isolating, tracing and mobilising people in the response is integral to preventing a handful of cases from becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.

Temporary travel restrictions remain in place. Foreign nationals who have travelled from or transited through mainland China and Iran are prohibited from entering New Zealand.

People who have been to Italy or South Korea are required to register with Healthline and self-isolate for 14 days, starting from the date of departure.

People who have travelled from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan or Thailand are urged to remain vigilant for COVID-19 symptoms but do not have to self-isolate.

New Zealand's COVID-19 case total has remained at five since Saturday, March 7. 

Any additional measures the Government may implement following the declaration may be discussed during Thursday's update. 

The Ministry of Health has been contacted for comment.