15 May 2020
This week received the same question from two VOA fans. Here is the first question.
"What is the difference between "pandemic" and "epidemic?" They appear a lot in recent VOA news. Thanks a lot!" - Tina, China.
A day later, we got this email: "In recent discussion of the outbreak and spread of coronavirus, we got a little bit confused by two similar words: "pandemic" & "epidemic". Could you please explain their difference and usage? Thank you so much for your kind help in advance." - Chris, China.
Dear Tina and Chris,
Thank you for writing to us. That is true, we are seeing and hearing these words very often in the news. When the coronavirus crisis began, it was called an "epidemic" or an "outbreak." After it spread across the whole world, the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to call it a "pandemic" on March 11.
Here are some examples from news stories about "epidemics" and "pandemic:"
Italy's coronavirus epidemic began in January.
The cholera pandemic began in India, and spread across the globe through trade routes.
One summer, refugees leaving a yellow fever epidemic in the Caribbean Islands sailed into Philadelphia.
I like to look at the origins of words when I am trying to understand them better so I can explain them to you. I found that both of these words were adjectives in English before we started using them as nouns. That is why they end in -ic, like the word "tragic." The same thing is true of the words "comic" and "academic" – they are used as both nouns and adjectives. Here is a sentence where "epidemic" is used as an adjective:
The Centers for Disease Control confirmed that the flu has now reached epidemic proportions across the U.S.
When we use it as an adjective, "epidemic" is often followed by the word "proportions." Together, this means the size of the group of people affected is very large.
These days, you might hear people use "epidemic" to talk about a non-medical problem, such as:
There was an epidemic of crime in the city.
Or, health officials warn about the epidemic use of flavored tobacco.
Merriam Webster Dictionary tells us that our word "pandemic" comes from two Greek word parts: pan- for "all" or "every" and demos for "people." Medical writers use this word to talk about an illness that affects almost everyone in a country or that crosses borders to affect people in many countries.
On March 11, 2020, WHO's director-general said, "Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly." He was reminding people that the word is used only for the most extreme and dangerous situations.
Using the two words
To use these terms, the main thing you should remember is that a pandemic is much worse than an epidemic. A pandemic is a type of epidemic, but you cannot say that an epidemic is a type of pandemic.
And people rarely use "pandemic" to talk about a non-medical problem, as we mentioned earlier with "epidemic."
Here are a couple of sentences for you to listen to with "epidemic" or pandemic." Fill in the blank.
With fewer people in the streets because of the _________, more wild animals are walking in cities around the world.
If you answered "pandemic," you are right because the word describes the worldwide spread of disease which has affected people and animals.
Now try completing this news headline:
The ______ of Kindness: Free Toilet Paper, Car Washes and More
You're right if you guessed "epidemic," because it is used to describe something that affects a lot of people but is not necessarily a disease. In fact, it's something good. Many groups are talking about this epidemic of kindness as they find ways to help each other during this pandemic.
Send us your question by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And that's Ask a Teacher for this week.
I'm Jill Robbins.
Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
outbreak – n. a sudden start or increase of fighting or disease
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