Home / 40 Frequently Asked Questions About Pandemics and Their Answers

While the term "pandemic" may be thrown around quite a bit and used to refer to a number of different events (like a "pandemic" of mortgage lending leading up to the 2008 housing crisis), this is actually a very specific medical term. According to the World Health Organization, “A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. A pandemic occurs when a new virus emerges and spreads around the world, and most people do not have immunity. Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal viruses.”

One's chances of surviving a pandemic are highest when they adequately prepare for one and when they know how to respond to a pandemic, should one occur. Most deaths that occur during such an event are preventable. While this is a sad truth, it does afford a silver lining in that, if most deaths are preventable, having the right knowledge about pandemics improves one's odds of preventing those deaths.

Put as simply as possible; a pandemic is an outbreak of illness of global proportions. Such events occur when infection due to a bacteria or virus becomes capable of spreading widely and rapidly. Pandemics form when a contagious illness spreads from person to person faster than public health responses can contain that spread.

Another one to consider is “outbreak.” And while these terms are similar, they do have distinct differences. Here are the definitions:

  • A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread over multiple countries or continents. It is a far-reaching public health crisis.
  • An epidemic refers to a disease that affects many people within a specific community, population, or region.
  • An outbreak refers to a (usually) sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease in a single area. An outbreak is a public health emergency because it can become an epidemic if it is not quickly controlled.

The last global pandemic, at the time of this writing, is the one that is still ongoing, the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in late-2019.

One could create a very long list of things to stock up on, depending on their own tastes and preferences. One health group lists the following foodstuffs as being good items for staying well-fed while social distancing at home:

  • Healthy cooking oils, such as canola or olive oil.
  • Balsamic vinegar, for flavor.
  • They last longer than many cold-storage foods.
  • Consider shelf-stable milk or nondairy milk.
  • Family packs of lean meat, fish and chicken. Separate these into smaller portions and freeze until needed.
  • Fresh produce with a longer shelf life. Try options like oranges, apples and broccoli.
  • Canned or boxed broth.
  • Canned tomatoes or tomato sauce.
  • Dried fruit for snacks.
  • Canned fruits and vegetables. Choose fruit packed in its own juice, not syrup. And pick canned vegetables labeled as low- or no-sodium.
  • Canned beans for protein. Low-sodium is a healthy choice here too.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables. Choose frozen veggies without added sauces.
  • Dried pasta (preferably whole wheat).
  • Brown rice.
  • Hot cereals like plain oatmeal.
  • Dry cereal or granola.
  • Hard, aged cheeses.
  • Protein or fruit bars.
  • Peanut butter.
  • A variety of dried herbs and spices.
  • Food for infants, if needed.

Pandemics are simply major diseases and illnesses which become global, and such diseases and illnesses appear in the form of outbreaks every year. This means that there is the potential for pandemics every year. Thankfully, public health measures are usually effective in preventing such events, though they do happen every few years, with very severe events occurring every few decades.

Yes. As touched on earlier, pandemics can be the worst type of natural disaster known to man because it is one of the only if not the only disaster event that threatens the entire human race as a whole. If a particularly contagious and highly dangerous virus was released into the human population, there is a chance it could kill off most humans before public health experts would be able to formulate a vaccine or treatment for the virus. The key difference between a pandemic and other disease events is that a pandemic is global. Disease events can cause serious harm in isolated regions, but that harm does not spread outwards and into the general population if the disease spread is contained. A pandemic is the worst type of disease event because it denotes a serious illness that has spread across the entire planet.

The Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the most-talked-about pandemic in modern American history, but there have been others. Most notably was the Spanish Influenza of 1918 and 1919, in which about 675,000 people died, or almost 1% of the entire world population at the time.

Another pandemic that caused immense harm in the United States was the Polio outbreak and pandemic. This crisis was very difficult to get rid of, and it ebbed and flowed between 1916 and 1955. It claimed about 3,145 lives. While the death toll was not that high, thousands upon thousands of Americans, especially young people, were permanently paralyzed by the outbreak.

The H2N2 flu was another serious pandemic. It started in Singapore and came to the U.S., appearing in coastal cities in the summer of 1957. About 116,000 people died from it in the United States, and global deaths were estimated at 1.1 million.

Pandemics have occurred throughout history. For as long as humans have inhabited this Earth, pandemics have existed. That's why it's worthwhile to remember that the next pandemic is not a matter of if... but when.

The most effective ways to stop a pandemic are through public health measures like social distancing, masking, vaccinations, practicing good hygiene, proper diet, sufficient sleep, and other activities that boost one's individual health and immune response while reducing contact with others.

Such a term simply refers to a major health crisis that requires a population to observe public health guidelines. It is a health crisis so significant that the cooperation of an entire population is needed to end the crisis.

No. They actually occur far more often than that. It is just coincidental that two of the worst health crises, the COVID-19 crisis and the Spanish Influenza, occurred almost exactly 100 years apart.

By person-to-person contact, or by humans touching or coming into contact with things that infected humans had previously touched or come into contact with.

Not technically, no. Though the effects of smallpox were devastating in the United States, when the outbreaks were occurring, they were largely occurring before international travel was a major, daily event. So most smallpox outbreaks just ended up being localized epidemics.

This brings up a point worth mentioning. The reason why most pandemics have occurred within the last 150 to 200 years is because such a health crisis involves the entire world experiencing the crisis, something that has only been able to realistically occur in the last two centuries (due to the modernization of international travel).

This subject has been disputed for some time now. Quoting one article, “HIV/AIDS, or human immunodeficiency virus, is considered by some authors a global pandemic. However, the WHO currently uses the term 'global epidemic' to describe HIV. As of 2018, approximately 37.9 million people are infected with HIV globally. There were about 770,000 deaths from AIDS in 2018. The 2015 Global Burden of Disease Study,  in a report published in The Lancet estimated that the global incidence of HIV infection peaked in 1997 at 3.3 million per year. Global incidence fell rapidly from 1997 to 2005, to about 2.6 million per year, but remained stable from 2005 to 2015.”

Though this event technically does fit better under the “epidemic” title, there is no doubting that this health crisis was excruciating. According to one resource, “The Black Death was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent’s population.

Such a disaster involves the rapid spread of a contagious disease that can be fatal. Such events are terrifying, because if public health measures are not successful in containing and eradicating the illness, it could lead to the end of the human race.

Such illnesses begin with a human coming into contact with a bacteria, virus, germ, or pathogen of some kind. This occasionally occurs by the bacteria jumping from a host body of an animal to the human, or it can occur by a human coming into contact with a contaminated surface, a contaminated liquid, a germ in the air, etc.

The best way to prepare for such an event is to practice good hygiene and to be in great health. Even the most ruthless of communicable diseases tend not to be as effective against people who are very healthy. Practicing good health measures in one's home and following public health guidelines (and encouraging others to do the same) can be effective at preventing the spread of illness.

After a crisis like this comes to pass due to some form of herd immunity, life will likely return to normal, though the recovery period for all aspects of day-to-day life may be a long one.

Following are ten emergency tips for what to do if you find yourself in an environment with an active pandemic:

  1. Avoid airports and public transportation.
  2. Stay away from heavily crowded areas, such as malls, schools, churches, city centers, etc.
  3. Get into the right protective gear, including coveralls, face masks, gloves, eye protection, etc.
  4. Procure and use antibacterial products. Keeping the hands clean during a pandemic is essential.
  5. Clean your environment frequently. Regular disinfection helps prevent contamination.
  6. If you begin to feel ill, seek medical help immediately. Please don't put it off.
  7. Do NOT visit family and friends during a pandemic.
  8. Keep to yourself and your immediate family bubble as much as possible. Avoid contact.
  9. Stock up on essential supplies. The less you have to go out and be around people, the better.
  10. Isolate, isolate, isolate. Stay indoors as much as possible and away from your neighbors.

A pandemic is a unique natural disaster in that it is almost guaranteed you and your family will survive if you simply eliminate all contact with other humans. Unlike other disasters that are entirely nature-based, pandemics can only exist with the human component. If you and your family can isolate yourselves from others, you stand a high chance of surviving the crisis.

Yes. Most experts agree that, while our capacities for battling such events are improving, major disease events are getting much worse very quickly.

A pandemic is never just a "one time" event. Once a new virus or pathogen introduces itself into the human population, it will likely make a comeback, even after it appears to recede. With that being said, most pandemics come in waves, meaning they appear and "disappear" about two or three times over the course of one to two years.

Such events can lead to widespread problems including mass deaths, illness, economic shutdown, infrastructure failure, joblessness, poverty, premature deaths, serious societal harm, increased crime, reduced educational attainment, problems with international relations, etc.

Pandemics can reach as far as wherever humans live. For example, consider Covid-19, arguably the worst pandemic to strike the United States since the Spanish Influenza of the early-1900s. Covid-19 not only reached every single country on Planet Earth, but there were even Covid-19 cases in Antarctica!

That depends entirely on how contagious the virus is. In the case of Covid-19 and its variants, because the virus was especially contagious, the pandemic spread very quickly. The outbreak started in Wuhan, China. But despite the efforts of governments across the planet to prevent spread, Covid-19 had made its way into several countries in a matter of weeks, dozens of countries within a matter of months, and the entire planet in less than a year.

Densely populated urban areas are always at the highest risk for viral spread. The most densely populated cities in the U.S. are:

  • New York
  • San Francisco
  • Boston
  • Miami
  • Chicago
  • Philadelphia
  • Washington, DC
  • Long Beach
  • Seattle
  • Los Angeles

And the most densely populated states/territories/districts in the U.S. are:

  • New Jersey
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio

Yes. Even if a significant percentage of a population becomes inoculated against a particular virus, a pandemic can resurge and come back. If herd immunity is not achieved, a population is always at risk for a reappearance of a virus and a resulting pandemic. The Mayo Clinic defines herd immunity as such, “Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected — not just those who are immune.”

Pandemics are more likely to occur when unsanitary conditions are prevalent and when people in an environment are not following basic public health and hygiene practices. Pandemics are also more likely when people are not taking care of their health. As it turns out, common-sense strategies like good hygiene, practicing good health, taking care of one's immune system, following public health protocols, and maintaining sanitized homes, businesses, and restaurants all go a long way towards preventing pandemics.

There is a long but important answer to this question that cites meticulous research done by an international coalition of virologists.

The big question on everyone's mind is this. Are pandemics going to become more common in future years? The hard answer is yes. According to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, there are five, key points that will undoubtedly make pandemics more common (and more serious) in the future:

Global Travel.

  • "In 2020, people in many countries around the world are almost as used to hopping on an international flight as they are catching a bus or a train to another city. Air travel makes it possible for someone to travel halfway across the globe in less time than it takes for many diseases to incubate, making it extremely difficult to prevent their spread. In 1990, 1 billion people travelled by air, a number that more than quadrupled to 4.2 billion by 2018."

Urbanization.

  • "In 1950, roughly two-thirds of the world lived in rural settings, and the rest in urban dwellings. By 2050 the UN predicts this will have reversed, with 66% of people living in urbanized settings in which infectious diseases can thrive, without adequate health systems that can deal with these threats."

Climate Change.

  • "Between 2030 and 2050, climate change will kill an additional quarter of a million people a year through the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. An increasing risk of flooding, which can be brought about by more frequent extreme weather events, also means that outbreaks of waterborne diseases, like cholera and other diarrheal diseases, are also much more likely. And climate change is also radically changing where people live, with climate shock events resulting in significant human displacement, often leading to populations moving into already-crowded cities or sometimes crossing borders into other countries. This can trigger conflict and an increase in the number of people living in refugee camps, where infectious disease epidemics can spiral out of control."

Increased Human-Animal Contact.

  • "The way in which people and animals come into contact today is significantly increasing the risk of outbreaks of zoonotic diseases – those that originate in animals. When pathogens jump the species barrier, from animals to humans, their ability to spread and the severity of the disease they cause is a potentially lethal unknown."

Health Worker Shortages.

  • "The constant migration of nurses from low- and middle-income countries to high-income countries has left many nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with too few nurses and other health workers to adequately care for their populations. These are also the regions where epidemic diseases, with the potential to become pandemics, are most likely to originate."

If you are going to be in close proximity with others, wear a face mask. If you're going to be touching high-contact items, such as while on public transit, wear gloves and do not touch your skin with your gloved hands. When you get home, take your shoes off and leave them outside. Spray them with disinfectant.

Use a spray or wipe disinfectant on the parts of your car that you would touch frequently. Drive with the air on and make sure your airflow settings are adjusted so that fresh air is being brought into the car. Try to reduce having other people in the car with you.

Clean and sanitize the following, high-touch areas:

  • Children’s areas
  • Doorknobs
  • Stair rails
  • Countertops
  • Faucets
  • Phones
  • Desktops
  • Tables
  • Chair arms
  • End tables
  • Personal electronic devices
  • Keys
  • Credit cards
  • Tablets
  • Remote controls
  • Keyboards
  • Pens

Other ways to sanitize the home include doing laundry frequently, cleaning the floors often, sanitizing the bathroom and kitchen more frequently than usual, and airing the house out often (opening the windows, running fans, increasing airflow, etc.)

  Follow a similar protocol as you would when sanitizing your home. Disinfect commonly touched surfaces, clean the floors frequently, ensure sufficient air flow and filtration, etc.

That depends entirely on the type of pandemic. Not all disinfectants will be effective against all germs and bacteria. Basic household disinfectants like hydrogen peroxide are almost always sufficient, but be sure to check with local health officials to see if there is a specialty disinfectant that you should use for the specific pandemic you are in.


Sanitize these items frequently, and do not touch them with your bare skin if you can avoid it.

If you are a civilian, you should ensure that you have disposable face masks and disposable gloves. A face shield can also help prevent infection. If you are a medical expert or first responder, you should ensure that you have full PPE to cover and protect your entire body.

Any germ, virus, or bacteria that can be transmitted from one human to the next has the potential of causing a pandemic.

Avoid any and all activities that involve gatherings of people. This includes sporting events, movie theaters, shopping malls, rallies, college or school events, club meetings, etc. The goal must be one of reducing human contact as much as possible.

One of the best ways to stay healthy and well during a pandemic is to maintain great hygiene. Wash your hands when you're engaged in the following:

  • Blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • Using the bathroom
  • Before and after food preparation
  • Before and after eating
  • Before and after caring for an ill person
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After handling garbage
  • After touching an animal

Use soap and hot water when you wash your hands. Scrub them thoroughly for at least twenty seconds. Use a clean towel to dry them.

Use hand sanitizers often. Not a substitute for hand washing, but they do help to prevent the spread of infection.

Another good personal hygiene practice is to limit or eliminate the sharing of personal items. Don't share utensils, drinking glasses, dishes, bedding, towels, combs, brushes, razors, and other personal items.

Avoid hand-to-face contact. Get into the habit of refraining from touching your face.

Cover coughs and sneezes to prevent the spread of germs, and avoid contact with those who are ill. Insist those who are ill self-isolate themselves.

If you are sick, you should quarantine. If someone else is sick, they should quarantine. If you have come into contact with someone who is sick or someone else has come into contact with you while you are sick, you should both quarantine.

Do's:

  • Do use a tissue or an elbow when you sneeze or cough.
  • Do leave your shoes outside before entering your home.
  • Do throw away gloves and masks after every use.
  • Do disinfect everyday-use items.
  • Do wear a mask when you're around other people, and maintain a distance of six feet.
  • Do say hi and be friendly to people. Hard times are best lived through with solidarity and kindness to others.

Don'ts:

  • Don't share utensils with others.
  • Don't share towels or other personal items.
  • Don't use cleaning products with alcohol content over 90% (the alcohol will evaporate before it kills viruses.
  • Don't go to work, school, or out in public when you are sick.
  • Do not touch other people unless you absolutely have to.