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According to Reuters news agency, the Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference today (March 11th) that:

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 characterized as a pandemic,

The same article, however, cites unnamed WHO officials as saying that the term "pandemic" is just a descriptive word and does not carry any legal significance.

What significance, if any, does the characterisation that has been made today have?

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Very little, practically speaking.

From the WHO:

"Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this #coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do"- @DrTedros

As discussed in this Q&A, the definition of "pandemic" is fairly arbitrary. It does identify this virus, both in the present day and in history, as particularly significant, but there is nothing magical that changes with this definition from a political (or epidemiological) perspective, and there appear to be no particular political consequences of the definition from the WHO's perspective.

That is, there are no special funds or protocols that are activated by declaring a "pandemic" the way you might expect for various "declarations of emergency", which often activate laws that change regulations and procedures during the emergency and may allow for release of funds marked for that purpose.

From the content of the announcement, it seems like the WHO's primary goal in making this declaration is to reiterate the severity of the situation rather than to mark any particular milestone or to alter any guidance or recommendations.

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  • The WHO does have an official "warning level" called PHEIC, which entails some legal [mostly reporting it seems] obligations from the countries involved. But the WHO has already applied it to Covid-19 a while back, on Jan 30, actually. – Fizz Mar 12 at 5:11
  • @Fizz Yes - which has nothing to do with the "pandemic" designation, as your comment makes clear. – Bryan Krause Mar 12 at 5:29
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Like any alert system, this is the highest level of alert they can issue. What does this exactly mean, however? That's not as clear

In some ways, declaring a pandemic is more art than science. “Pandemics mean different things to different people,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said in February. “It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you.”

It seems that the WHO is more concerned with not wearing the word out with overuse

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” said Dr. Tedros on March 11. “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

In other words, the word "pandemic" is not tied to any specific strategic actions or scientific observations, it's merely a warning that "things are bad with this disease".

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