The Meaning of Pandemic

Three weeks ago, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus COVID-19 to be a pandemic.

As the contagion spread from China to other countries, there was pressure on the WHO to upgrade the situation from what it had termed “a global public health emergency” to pandemic status.

When it did so, the decision made world headlines. Yet, it was a curious event. There is no precise, agreed-upon definition of pandemic. The WHO itself defines it loosely as the “worldwide spread of a new disease.”

Furthermore, the WHO announcement contained an explanatory note: “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

Why, then, the portentous relabeling?

The answer is that use of the word pandemic (deriving from the Greek pan — all and demos — people) dramatizes the matter. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the purpose was to galvanize a more effective global response to the spreading disease.

In other words, the change in terminology was symbolic. An attention-getter.

Governments have indeed been stepping up their containment measures, in part due to the WHO prodding, though the pandemic rages on.

At the time, 114 countries had reported cases of COVID-19. Since then, the figure has risen to 203 countries and territories, with a total of 859,825 confirmed cases (as of April 1).

Even the high seas are not immune, with both cruise ships and even U.S. aircraft carriers having confirmed cases aboard their vessels.

Scientists are still studying COVID-19, and the race to develop a vaccine goes on. The salient facts are that it is deadly and it is virtually everywhere. There is no running away.

Every state in the U.S. has it. Not only the high-population-density states like New York and New Jersey, but even in places like Alaska and Wyoming, where social distancing is a way of life, the disease has appeared.

If it was once thought that rural areas and even suburbs were safer from contagious diseases like this, it is no longer the case.

A current ad for a farm out in the wide-open spaces of Oklahoma addressed to city-dwellers, intones, “You need a safe place for your family to live.”

The pitch makes sense, but it’s out of date. As City Lab explains, “Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous.” It may take longer for coronavirus to get to Kenai, Alaska (near Sodoltna and Homer, and 30 minutes flying time from Anchorage), it will still get there. The town of 7,778 reported its first case on March 31.

Roger Keil, a professor of urban studies at York University in Toronto, wrote recently online in The Conversation, “The idea that we can go to the countryside to protect ourselves is a bit of a myth, because it doesn’t exist like it used to.”

Only 18 countries still claim to be free of the pandemic. But, as the WHO warned on Tuesday, the coronavirus will touch every part of the world, regardless of how many individual countries have avoided it so far.

In other words, there is nowhere to run to. That is the message from Shamayim. That is the attention-getter from Hashem.

The classic case of someone trying to flee the dvar Hashem is the Navi Yonah. His story illustrates for all generations the futility of attempting to run away from our responsibilities.

The Mishnah Berurah in his commentary to the reading of Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur (622:7, Shaar Hatziun 6), explains that the reason for its reading on the holiest day in the calendar is to remind us of just that: we cannot escape Hashem. Even if we travel in ships to the ends of the Earth, our destiny will find us. Whether that destiny is to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, or whether it is to accept the reality of coronavirus and the problems in our own lives, it must be accepted.

Writes the Mishnah Berurah: “At times a person will despair, saying that he cannot rectify his sins, that he will continue living as he has been, and if Hashem decrees that he shall die, he shall die. But this is a mistake, for whatever Hashem has decreed he must rectify, it must be done — even if it means coming back into this world again and again … and the proof is from Yonah.”

We cannot go on living as before. Just as the pandemic forces us to radically alter our behavior, lest we fall ill and die, so too Hashem calls on us to radically change our ways, bein adam laShem, bein adam lachaveiro. There is no other way.

But if coronavirus is everywhere, so is Hashem. We have nowhere to flee to, and no one to turn to but to Him. In our isolation, in our fear and anxiety, we must know that wherever we are, Hashem is with us.

May Hashem in His rachamim bring a swift end to the sickness and suffering that is upon us.