Q&A: Epidemic vs pandemic

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're going viral…

Q: So, I’ve been hearing lots of reporting on the news about epidemics and pandemics – what’s the difference?

A: Now that’s a very good question.

Q: Why thank you.

A: It’s probably best to go back to the beginning.

Q: Wuhan province, China?

A: Nooo, the Greeks! Both words are Greek in origin – the “demic” part from “demos” – meaning “the people”.

Q: Is that where we get “democracy” from?

A: Sure is. But of course viruses don’t care what form of government you have.

Q: Indeed. So, what about the difference? Which is worse?

A: Based purely on meaning, “epidemic” translates as “among the people” while “pandemic” means “all the people”.

Q: And all the pandas?

A: No, not the pandas.

Q: Right. So it sounds like a pandemic is the worst then?

A: Semantically, yes. But let’s start at the beginning. A sudden spike in cases of a disease is known as an “outbreak”.

Q: Oh, I usually get an outbreak if I ignore the ridiculous “peel and reseal” label and eat a whole block of chocolate in one sitting…

A: Right, well, this is a little more serious – and if the disease spreads rapidly, then you have an “epidemic” on your hands.

Q: On my hands? But I used hand sanitiser!

A: And finally, if an epidemic spreads over several countries or continents, affecting a large number of people, it becomes a “pandemic”.

Q: That’s it! Clearly this current virus is a pandemic! Arrrrrgh! Arrrrgh!

A: Well, the World Health Organisation has been careful not to throw that word about too often.

Q: Arrrrghhh!

A: Before now, the last thing they described as a pandemic was H1N1 flu back in 2009. They worry that it will… um… panic people.

Q: Arrrrrgh! Arrrrgh! Sorry, what?

A: In official terms at least, they define a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease – historically it described things like the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19…

Q: Or the Instagram influencer pandemic of 2018-19?

A: That’s not a thing.

Q: Hmmph. So even though this current disease has literally “gone viral” across the globe, they haven’t called it a pandemic?

A: It’s largely about management. Once you call something a pandemic, you’re no longer talking about containing it – so for the World Health Organisation, it’s a big deal to admit that a virus has taken over. Up until now, the World Health Organisation has instead described the outbreak as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, or PHEIC.

Q: PHEIC news!

A: That’s right. But – and this is an update – from 11 March 2020, they officially couldn’t deny it anymore and have announced COVID-19 or “coronavirus” is indeed a “pandemic”. 

Q: Arrrrgh! Arrrrrgh!

A: Calm down. It’s just a word.

Q: Okay. So, how long have we been calling things these names?

A: Both “epidemic” and “pandemic” turned up in English in the 1600s originally as adjectives only. “Epidemic” didn’t become a noun in 1757, while it wasn’t until 1853 that calling something “a pandemic” was a thing.

Q: How are the nouns defined in the dictionary?

A: The Macquarie Dictionary describes an epidemic as “a temporary prevalence of a disease” while a pandemic is “a universal disease”.

Q: Sheesh, no wonder they took so long to call it a pandemic. It would clearly create pandemonium… oh wait, is this where that word comes from?

A: Actually no, they’re fairly unrelated. “Pandemonium” was the name of the palace in Hell in John Milton’s 1667 book, Paradise Lost. It wasn’t until 1865 that it took on the wider meaning we use today of “wild, lawless confusion”.

Q: So, maybe if I’m writing about something like all this in a novel, I should just use “global outbreak” instead?

A: It’s up to you really. “Pandemic” is widely used by everyone from the media to scientists, however an outbreak needs to meet a lot of criteria to be officially called one.

Q: And you’re sure all the pandas are fine?

A: Absolutely. This week it’s OUR turn to be the endangered species…

Q: Arrrrggh! Arrrrrrrgh!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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