As coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads around the world, the global health emergency could be categorised as a pandemic any day now. Definitions of words like outbreak, epidemic and pandemic can be blurred during viral outbreaks and can cause unnecessary fear.

The home doctor experts at House Call Doctor have defined each of these terms to help us understand the coronavirus status.


An outbreak is the initial term used to classify a disease affecting numerous people and is small-scale or low risk. It can be defined as a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease/infection. The influenza is an example of a seasonal, yearly outbreak which is not typically considered an epidemic or pandemic as there is an effective vaccine that minimises the risk of contraction.


An outbreak may be labelled an epidemic when the disease spreads rapidly to many people. It refers to an outbreak that has grown out of control but is often within one country or location.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines a pandemic as a worldwide spread of a new disease. This means an outbreak will only be called a pandemic when it’s widespread, over several countries and usually affecting a large number of people. The disease must also be infectious.

What is the current situation?

WHO has classified COVID-19 as a global health emergency, but it is not a pandemic yet. It is not considered a pandemic as it is still considered containable. Once it reaches a level where the spread can no longer be controlled, it will move into the pandemic phase.

What happens once a pandemic is declared?

Once a condition reaches pandemic levels, it becomes more likely for the disease to spread throughout the community which means governments and healthcare providers need to ensure they are prepared. Geographic limitations on an epidemic allow health organisations such as WHO to intervene to slow or prevent the spread of the virus. A pandemic has ongoing consequences for how many resources are available to address the outbreak and where they are assigned. During a pandemic, WHO and the United Nations divide resources across the world rather than an affected territory. Governments focus on preventing the spread of the virus during an epidemic. A pandemic may cause authorities to stop prevention and focus on treating the illness and protecting the vulnerable.