COVID-19 Dictionary: Defining 'Pandemic,' 'Peak,' and 'Flattening the Curve'

Medical jargon, simplified.

The World Health Organization just declared that COVID-19 is a pandemic, adding another word to our growing COVID-19 dictionary. The worldwide outbreak has been on the top of everyone’s feed, with medical jargon being thrown left and right. To add some clarity to these already confusing times, here’s a quick guide to all the COVID-19 words and phrases you need to know.


The big word of the day is “pandemic,” which is used to refer to a worldwide spread of a new disease. It’s a serious characterization to describe something that has become international and out of control. The word itself has become a political label as it demands the utmost attention and containment efforts from world governments. It’s not a word to be used lightly. There have been only a handful of pandemics in the last two centuries.

But the word in itself refers to the spread of the disease, and not necessarily the severity of it. For example, Ebola is considered an epidemic but it has a far worse mortality rate than COVID-19. Long story short, pandemic is not synonymous with “panic.”

Past pandemics: H1N1 flu pandemic (2009), HIV/AIDS pandemic (1960 until present), seventh cholera pandemic (1961-1975), H2N2 flu pandemic (1956 to 1958), encephalitis lethargica pandemic (1915 to 1926), sixth cholera pandemic (1899 to 1923).


“Epidemic” has a smaller scope than a pandemic. It’s characterized as a less localized infection that is infecting many people at a time. It’s limited to a specific region or community, and is often considered as an infectious disease that spreading faster than it can be contained. Until recently, WHO characterized COVID-19 as an epidemic.


“If something is spreading like wildfire, it’s an epidemic. If something has already spread like wildfire and is currently massive in its reach and impact, it’s a pandemic,” according to this dictionary definition.

Past epidemics: Kivu Ebola epidemic (2018 to present), Zika virus epidemic (2015 to 2016), Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa (2013 to 2016), Dengue in the Philippines (2019), SARS (2003).


“Outbreak” is a general term that encompasses both endemics and pandemics. Outbreak refers to a situation where the number of disease cases is significantly high in a certain geographical area. These outbreaks are sudden and take place at a specific time and place.

Epidemics are a type of outbreak, but in relation to a type of rare infectious disease. Meanwhile, pandemics refer to global outbreaks. Outbreak can be used interchangeably with these terms, but epidemic and pandemic are more formal terms and are used for larger, more significant events—like COVID-19.


This is what all the ruckus is about. COVID-19 refers to the coronavirus disease 2019. It’s the word that’s been plastered all over the news for months. As its full name suggests, it refers to the disease, not the virus. Its symptoms are primarily fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. While majority of cases are considered “mild,” it can be a severe disease to those with preexisting conditions or are at an advanced age. Complications with COVID-19 include pneumonia and multi-organ failure.

There are currently more than 125,000 persons infected with COVID-19 around the world, with a mortality rate of about 3.4 percent and fatalities at 4,500.

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The cause of all the ruckus. SARS-CoV-2 refers to the actual virus that is causing COVID-19. This is the culprit of the entire pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 is a strain of the species “severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus.” People have been using “coronavirus” to refer to COVID-19, which isn’t accurate as SARS-CoV-2 is the actual coronavirus at the center of all of this.

WHO usually just refers to SARS-CoV-2 as the virus responsible for COVID-19 to avoid confusion with all the medical jargon. SARS-CoV-2 is contagious in humans and shares a close genetic similarity to bat coronaviruses, from which it most likely originated from when it was passed onto a human and the entire Wuhan-originated pandemic began.


When the worst of the pandemic has arrived, that is called “the peak.” This happens after the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases, when the number of infected persons has reached its highest. While this is the worst moment of the pandemic for certain countries, it’s not a sign of the end of the world, because once the virus peaks, numbers will fall and the country may well be on the way to recovery. Long story short: it will get worse before it gets better.

The situation in China and South Korea, two of the hardest hit countries, is already improving with fewer and fewer cases being reported every day. This is because prior to this, both countries exerted all their efforts to detect and diagnose its population, so majority of people were accounted for. The more cases you find and cure, the less people you have to worry about. However, there are still worries of a “second wave” on the horizon.


Flattening the Curve

When scientists and government officials talk about “flattening the curve,” they’re referring to precautionary measures and interventions that can reduce the number of COVID-19 cases. This means stopping events, suspending school, implementing social distancing, encouraging self-quarantine, imposing travel bans, etc.

“Flattening the curve” tries to stop the peak from happening at all, and turns it into a more manageable plateau. Reducing the infection rates is also necessary because most healthcare systems are not prepared for a pandemic. A hospital can only cater to so many patients before it exceeds its capacity and is no longer able to provide quality medical service.

Social Distancing

Not an excuse to be anti-social, “social distancing” refers to putting space between you and other people to stop the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing measures include suspending schools and cancelling big events, and any events that require human contact. It also means putting at least three feet between you and other people, just in case they could pass COVID-19 to you.


Another word for self-quarantine, “self-isolation” means voluntarily staying at home and avoiding human contact for at least 14 days, the estimated incubation period of the virus. This means avoiding contact with all persons and animals, and taking extra precautions to sterilize things you’ve touched if you happen to live with someone.

One thing it is not is a two-week leave from work or an excuse to hang out with friends. Many local companies are now adopting work-from-home schemes, so don’t expect it to be a holiday.



A COVID-19-caused “lockdown” means that everyone in a certain area will be required by the government to stay at home and self-quarantine to stop the spread of COVID-19. No one leaves their house unless the government permits it. Italy is currently the only country that has put its entire nation on lockdown after it became the worst affected country outside of China. Relax, it’s not Martial Law. It’s a precautionary measure to stop the pandemic from reaching those who might not be able to survive it.

Consider it your down time away from the office, but businesses can still continue through work-from-home schemes.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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