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The journey from 'epi-' to 'pan-' (a Coronavirus special)

A hospital in Kansas, the United States, during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918

The World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19, which is short for Coronavirus Disease - 2019, a pandemic.

However, I have noticed that there is quite some confusion about the meaning of the words 'epidemic' and 'pandemic'. Why did COVID-19 change from an epidemic into a pandemic?

The prefix 'epi' comes from Greek and means 'upon', 'on', 'over', 'near', 'at', 'before' or 'after'. A word which you are probably all familiar with is 'epicentre', which is used in the context of earthquakes to mean the part of the earth's surface which is right above the hypocentre, i.e. the point in the ground in which an earthquake originated.

Another word which most Maltese will be familiar with is episcopate, which is the region, or diocese, which falls under a bishop's remit. Two other 'epi- words' are epidermis, the top layer of the skin and epitaph, which is the message written upon our tomb.

As you can see, the prefix 'epi' is used to denote a short distance from something, especially when the 'epi object' is on top of something else. In the case of a virus or a disease that is spreading, the illness becomes an epidemic when it spreads from its centre (just like an earthquake) to its close regions. A disease spreading in a country or region is therefore an epidemic. The ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, for example, is considered an epidemic because it spread from its centre, Guinea, to its neighbouring countries, but never got much farther than West Africa.

The prefix 'pan', on the other hand, means 'all'. It also comes from Greek and we use it to say that something is all encompassing. 'Panorama', for example, means that a view is complete and has no obstacles in its way. 'Panoply' originally meant a full armour. Today, we mostly use it to say that we have a full array of something (e.g. The company bought of a full panoply of electronic devices.). Other common uses of 'pan' are pan-Christian (meaning a congregation of all the Christian denominations) and pan-European (something that involves the whole of Europe, e.g. The migration issue needs a pan-European solution.).

Which brings us to 'pandemic'. COVID-19 turned from an epidemic into a pandemic when it, first, spread around the world and, second (and more importantly) started originating from different parts of the world. Although the hypocentre was once Wuhan in the Hubei province of China, countries like South Korea, Italy and Iran are now harbingers and exporters of the disease in their own right.This is why COVID-19 is a pandemic.

Now go isolate yourself, wash your hands with soap and continue writing.

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