Epidemic or Pandemic? They’re Different and Why It Matters

Long before the World Health Organization (WHO) officially deemed COVID-19 a pandemic, people broadly used the term in conversations about the disease.

The health crisis that started in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 was soon discovered in a few other countries. That instantly made it a pandemic, right?

Not so.

People often, incorrectly, interchange the terms “epidemic” and “pandemic.” Here’s the core difference in simple terms:

  • An epidemic is an outbreak that spreads over a large geographical area.
  • A pandemic has a broader reach—spreading globally.

Understanding Epidemics

WHO defines an epidemic as the occurrence of an illness or health-related events in a community or region that exceeds normal expectation. This includes precisely specifying the community and region as well as the time period in which the cases happen.

An epidemic can range in case number, with variables such as the size and type of population exposed to the illness, as well as the time and place an outbreak occurs.

WHO looks at an epidemic threshold, which is the critical number of “susceptible” hosts required for an epidemic to happen, to confirm if an epidemic has emerged, so it can direct appropriate control measures.

Here are a few examples of epidemics in the United States:

  • Cholera
  • The flu
  • Measles
  • Zika virus

Understanding Pandemics

While pandemics begin as epidemics, epidemics do not always become pandemics; however, WHO officially deemed COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are six intervals that make up its Pandemic Intervals Framework (PIF).

Here’s a quick breakdown of those six intervals in a flu-based example.

  1. Investigation: Illness is identified in people, initiating investigation and risk assessment.
  2. Recognition: After the illness has been identified, recognition of increased potential of ongoing transmission.
  3. Initiation of pandemic wave: The pandemic begins with people becoming easily infected and the virus spread is sustained from person-to-person.
  4. Acceleration: The number of new cases accelerates or speeds up.
  5. Deceleration: The number of new cases consistently decreases.
  6. Preparation: When the outbreak subsides, officials will continue to monitor activity and prepare for additional waves.

Here are a few examples of pandemics:

  •     Bubonic Plague
  •     Spanish flu
  •     Smallpox
  •     COVID-19

COVID-19 Pandemic

While COVID-19 began in China, it quickly spread to other countries. Had the virus remained contained to that geographic region, it could have remained classified as an epidemic, but as it became globally widespread, effecting as of late March 176 countries and regions, it was clear to health officials that the coronavirus was now a pandemic.

By March 31, more than half a million people around the globe were confirmed to have the illness, with death tolls exceeding 40,000 worldwide. While China initially led the world with confirmed cases, its tally was quickly topped by Italy and then the United States with cases nearly reaching 150,000 just months after the outbreak began.

Health Crises and Business Continuity Planning

The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly changing our economy and workforces.

Accurate, reliable information is important when you’re communicating with your employees, customers, and key stakeholders about business disruptions. That’s why it’s important to know the difference in the terms epidemic and pandemic so you know when to use them appropriately. If you’re unsure, always check with resources like WHO, the CDC in the U.S., and country-specific resources, like the National Health Service, in the U.K.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies, like restaurants and retailers, had to—hopefully temporarily—close doors or significantly limit services.

For manufacturers, first they experienced supply chain disruptions, before either decreasing production or shutting down operations altogether.

For other companies, for example companies that offer services instead of physical products, their workforces have dramatically shifted, with many moving to remote teams virtually overnight.

While we’ve still not realized the full economic impact of the pandemic, short-term losses include major drops in stock prices, large-scale event cancelations, declines in auto sales, and significant drops in oil prices.

These changes emphasize the importance of business continuity management programs (BCMP) for organizations of all sizes around the globe. And while a pandemic may be seen as a “grey swan event,” meaning it’s historically not likely to occur but has potential for significant impact, it’s important to include health-event related disruptions in your business continuity planning.

Resources for You

If you haven’t already included health events in your planning, and you are currently dealing with the fallout from the pandemic’s restrictions and impacts, we have five tips to help your organization remain resilient in these uncertain times. You can check them out here.

Ready for some hands-on help? Let’s discuss how to best achieve your resilience goals.