The word “pandemic” is very scary to people because it has the connotation of some sort of doomsday situation where everyone all over the world is sick with something deadly, or that millions and millions of people are dying and society is breaking down everywhere. However, the word “pandemic” is a scientific term for an outbreak that is occurring all over the world at the same time. You’ve probably been through several pandemics and did not even notice them or were hardly affected.
For example, the HIV epidemic in the United States that started in the late 1970s and continues today is really a pandemic. Millions of people have become ill with the disease and died, but the dynamics of the pandemic have made it so that general disruptions to daily living were minimal. Admittedly, those who became ill and died from HIV and AIDS did suffer the ultimate consequences. (We will leave the editorializing on the inhumane treatment of those infected for later.)
Between 1961 and 1975, the world went through a pandemic of cholera, a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhea and, with it, severe dehydration and death. That pandemic began in Indonesia, spread to the rest of Asia, then to the Soviet Union, and then on to North Africa and Europe. Almost 20 years later, the pandemic strain of cholera reached South America and would kill about 4,000 people. Advances in sanitation and water treatment have made a cholera pandemic less likely, but there are still outbreaks of the disease, primarily in developing nations and in locations after a natural disaster interrupts the clean water supply.
The most recent pandemic of influenza in 2009 began in northern Mexico early that year. By the end of 2009, the virus had spread worldwide. While there were not as many deaths from the virus as there had been in other influenza pandemics, the spread of the virus gave us a good idea of how global travel could take an infectious agent from one end of the world to the other. This brings us to today and coronavirus.
Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that community transmission of coronavirus in the United States was likely, and that preparations at all levels of the government were underway for this. They also advised that US residents need to be prepared for the possibility of disruptions to their everyday lives because of the measures that would have to be taken to deal with the epidemic. In short, containment measures to keep the virus away from the country have failed, and we are now in “community mitigation” mode. Everything possible will be done to keep the number of people sick at a minimum.
So what do you do? If you’re not an expert in infectious diseases and don’t work for the government, how do you know what you should do to prepare?
National Public Radio (NPR) has a great article on what ordinary people need to do to prepare. Their article is from 2017, but their advice is good for today: Make sure you have all your vaccines, keep up with the news and understand what is going on, and wash your hands often. Washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent all sorts of illnesses, and all it takes is a few seconds of running water and some soap:
Even before the 2009 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security put together Ready.gov, a website with tips for everyday people on being prepared for the worst. The worst, in this case, is not just coronavirus or any other pandemic. They also have information on being prepared for natural and man-made disasters, or even just really bad weather.
Of course, your state and local health departments will have plenty of tips and information, so make sure to look them up and follow them on social media. If they offer newsletter subscriptions, sign up for those. Or, if you’re really “old school,” look up their information hotlines and write those down to keep handy.
Then there are some of the questions you need to ask yourself and consult with your family:
- If school is cancelled, where will the children stay during the day while you work?
- If school and work are cancelled, how will you spend time?
- If you can’t go to the grocery store because you’re being asked to avoid crowded public places, do you have enough food at home for a few days?
- If there is an evacuation order, how will you know? Where will you go?
- Do you have enough cash for an emergency?
- If the power goes out, how will you heat food or water, or your home if it’s cold outside?
- If you’re taking care of someone — a child, an elderly relative, or someone with special needs — who will help if you get sick and are out of commission for a few days?
- If someone in your home is on medication, how will you refill it if necessary?
- Do you have access to a healthcare provider for questions in case someone who is under medical care gets sick?
- What is your back-up plan to your plan? (Seriously. Every plan needs at least one back-up plan.)
Again, these questions are not just for when a pandemic strikes. Plenty of natural disasters are possible in just about every part of the globe, and so are man-made disasters like industrial accidents or civil unrest. So be prepared, and the best time to begin preparations is now.
Important preparedness links:
- World Health Organization Situation Reports on Coronavirus
- List of accredited local and state health departments in the United States
- Coronavirus FAQ from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
- Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy