What do humanitarians mean by “epidemic”?

The global COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the value of shared understanding for collective response, the negative impact of misinformation and the importance of locally contextualised humanitarian action.

As part of the Geneva Centre’s active engagement in the response to COVID-19, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project has prioritised analysis of certain concepts relevant to the crisis and its impact on humanitarian situations.

By analysing key humanitarian concepts, such as ‘epidemic’, ‘crisis’ and ‘care’, we aim to support global and local humanitarian actors to speak a clear, common language, share knowledge as a public good, and foster the co-production of new knowledge to guide humanitarian response.

Feedback on this pilot analysis will inform the delivery of full concept entries, on its online platform, for the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s 129 concepts.

17 concepts have been selected for analysis over the next few weeks, and the first to be analysed is epidemic.

Using data visualization and infographics, we show when, where, how and by whom this concept is used in our collection of humanitarian documents, and explain similarities and differences in usage, meaning and contexts.

Our initial findings show: 

  • Epidemic is commonly used as a synonym of pandemic and outbreak, and in combination with emergency and disaster.
  • Specific disasters associated with epidemic include floods, earthquakes, famine and malnutrition.
  • Top three types of epidemic found in the document collection are cholera, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Epidemic occurred most frequently in our document collection in 2008 and 2015. 
  • Think tanks, humanitarian publication outlets, and projects are the types of organisations using the term most frequently.

We have accelerated our analysis of these concepts to provide a unique and useful resource for humanitarian responders to COVID-19 as they seek to build a common understanding in a dynamic environment.
We welcome you to visit the site and provide your feedback on the project.