We have been hearing the words epidemic and pandemic a lot recently. I am not a doctor or a biologist or an infectious disease expert. I’m not anything that can really be called a scientist. So, I only vaguely knew what these words mean. I knew they had to do with a disease and its spread. I knew they were alarming. But I never knew what made a specific incident of a disease an epidemic or a pandemic. I assumed there was a specific definition, like if a disease infects x% of a given population, it is an epidemic. Or if an outbreak infects people across y square kilometers, it is a pandemic. It turns out I was wrong.
I am a writer and very interested in language. I like to understand what words mean, both connotatively and denotatively. I like to understand how words are used, both literally and figuratively. Since I’ve been hearing epidemic and pandemic so much recently, I started doing some investigating. I went to www.merriam-webster.com (because where else would a good Nutmegger go?) and looked up epidemic and pandemic. According to Webster, an epidemic is, “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time,” or, “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” And a pandemic is, “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population,” or, “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” I found the definitions for both of these words to be a let down.
So, I tried looking the words up in a medical dictionary. For epidemic I found, “The occurrence of more cases of a disease than would be expected in a community or region during a given time period,” and for pandemic I found, “An epidemic (a sudden outbreak) that becomes very widespread and affects a whole region, a continent, or the world due to a susceptible population.” Those aren’t any better. I also tried WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and a bunch of other sites. None of them provided a better definition. From what I can find, it wasn’t my understanding of the words that was vague. The words themselves are vague.
If I understand these definitions (and as I said before, I’m not a doctor, so I might be misunderstanding something), almost anything can be an epidemic or a pandemic. If a disease normally infects one in a million people each year, but this year it infects three in a million people, that is an epidemic. It’s a sudden and sharp increase in the number of people infected. And if those people happen to be spread out geographically, that epidemic is a pandemic. They just don’t feel very scientific in the sense that they are not easily quantifiable. And they aren’t necessarily the same for everyone. It’s entirely possible that China calls something an epidemic, and the United States doesn’t, and they are both right. It’s possible that Africa calls something a pandemic, and Europe doesn’t, and they’re both right.
There would have been some comfort in specific, definite definitions. Instead, the vagueness makes these words more alarming than I found them before. It almost feels like that is their main point, to scare people. The word epidemic sounds threatening. The word pandemic sounds cataclysmic.
One lesson that I learned when I was very young was that panic is bad. Panic makes a bad situation worse. Since all the words epidemic and pandemic seem to do is invite us to panic, perhaps we should use them less. I’m not trying to minimize the current situation. We should try talking about the actual data instead. Then, we should put the data in context. And we should do it calmly. Things are scary enough without our word choices making it worse.