Important coronavirus terms explained

COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 85,000 lives globally with over 1.4 million confirmed cases in 196 countries and territories as of April 10th, according to World Health Organization. 

With the outbreak becoming the major focus for the news media as well as dominating public debates around the world, suddenly phrases like practice social distancing, we need to flatten the curve, immunocompromised people are at a higher risk are common in the conversations related to the virus.

If you find it hard to keep up with new COVID-19-related-terminologies, here’s a glossary of commonly used words and phrases and what they mean.

Pandemic vs outbreak

An outbreak is a sharp increase in the number of people who are sick with one disease while a pandemic refers to a global disease outbreak that is occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.  On March 11, the World Health Organisation formally declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Coronavirus and SARS-CoV-2

Although the terms “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” are often used interchangeably, coronaviruses are actually a family of viruses, some of which cause diseases in humans and some of which do not. The virus ravaging the world right now is called SARS-CoV-2, which is not to be confused with the SARS disease outbreak in 2003.


COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Similar to how AIDS is the disease caused by the virus known as HIV. The term “COVID-19” (Coronavirus Disease 2019), refers to the set of symptoms caused by this specific form of coronavirus such as dry cough and fever. It is possible to contract the virus and show no symptoms.

Flatten the curve

“Flattening the curve” essentially means slowing the spread of the disease, because if everyone gets sick all at once, it will overwhelm the hospital system.

As a form of informing people, institutions make charts with curving lines depicting different public health outcomes, like what would happen with no proactive health measures and what could happen with different ordinances of varying strictness in place.


Someone who is immunocompromised has immune system that has been weakened to the point that their body may not be able to fight off normal illnesses, let alone a serious one like COVID-19.

Conditions that can cause a person to be immunocompromised include heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.

Chemotherapy and steroids can also weaken a person’s immune system.

Quarantine Vs lockdown

Quarantines are used for people who aren’t sick with COVID-19 but have been exposed to someone who is. Quarantines work by keeping people who might get sick separated from others, to prevent them from unknowingly spreading the disease.

While a lockdown is when all nonessential activities get shutdown, with nonessential employees being ordered to work from home, schools, bars and restaurants are also closed, though food delivery may still be allowed. Rwanda has been under such lockdown since March 21st.

Isolation, social distancing and staying in place

Isolation separates people who are sick with COVID-19 from others while social distancing means keeping a distance of at least six feet from other people, and avoiding gatherings and unnecessary travel, in order to limit the spread of the virus.

Staying in place refers to conditions where no one is allowed to leave their home, except to run errands such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy. According to Rwanda National Police, even outdoors work outs are forbidden.

This story was first published at The New Times.