From the Field

What is the coronavirus? Facts, symptoms, and how to help

Coronavirus is a family of viruses, which can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the new coronavirus disease that first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, called COVID-19. A COVID-19 pandemic has sickened more than 31.9 million people globally and claimed the lives of more than 977,000 people around the world. The United States has the largest number of cases in the world — over 6.9 million — and more than 202,000 people have died.

COVID-19 is a contagious disease that causes mild to severe respiratory symptoms with fever, cough, and shortness of breath. It can be transmitted through person-to-person contact, mainly through respiratory droplets that become airborne when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. However, much remains unknown about how it spreads.

The new coronavirus was first identified on Dec. 31, 2019. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30. This declaration places countries on alert to do all they can to identify, isolate, and care for people who are infected; to prevent transmission; and to help other countries with weaker health systems. The WHO later declared a pandemic, meaning it is spreading globally, on March 11.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse decades of progress in the fight against poverty and income inequalities, and it jeopardizes the future of a generation of children.

Worldwide, World Vision is working diligently in all its program and development areas to keep children safe from infection. Within 18 months, our coronavirus response aims to provide support to at least 72 million people, half of them children. We have already served 24.5 million people, including 9.7 million children.

Help people made more vulnerable by the new coronavirus.

FAQs: The truth about the coronavirus and COVID-19

Find facts and answers to frequently asked questions about the new coronavirus, the new coronavirus disease COVID-19, and how World Vision is responding to the pandemic.

Fast facts: New coronavirus and COVID-19

  • COVID-19 is the first pandemic since the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) pandemic. Unlike COVID-19, H1N1 mostly affected children and young adults.
  • The number of people experiencing acute hunger is expected to double in 2020 to 265 million because of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • 5 billion students, 87% of the global student population, were out of school at the end of March because of the new coronavirus.
  • Over three months of quarantine, global cases of domestic violence and abuse are expected to increase by 20%, according to the U.N. Population Fund.


How can I help people made more vulnerable by the new coronavirus?

The coronavirus pandemic, like earlier epidemics of Zika and Ebola, is causing illness and death in many nations. Where children are left without adequate care and support, they may be forced into desperate situations, including dropping out of school and resorting to working, begging, or other exploitative situations to survive. You can help people made more vulnerable by the new coronavirus:

  • Pray: Lord, we come to You to intercede for Your precious children affected by the new coronavirus disease. Guide scientists and doctors in developing a vaccine, and bring comfort and healing to people who are suffering. We ask that You also fill with peace all the family members and friends of people affected.
  • Give: Your donation to World Vision will help to limit the spread of COVID-19 and reduce its impact on vulnerable children and their families in the U.S. and abroad.


What is the coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a family of viruses, some of which can infect people and animals, named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces.


What is a novel coronavirus?

A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2019 novel coronavirus is SARS-CoV-2, named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. While it may have been in animals for a while, it was first discovered in humans in late 2019.


What does COVID-19 stand for? What is it?

“CO” stands for corona, “VI” for virus, “D” for disease, and “19” refers to 2019, the year in which it was first discovered. COVID-19 is a new disease caused by a novel member of the coronavirus family — SARS-CoV-2 — that’s a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. There is still much to learn about the disease.


What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of COVID-19 include respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Sometimes people experience chills and shaking, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, or a new loss of sense of taste or smell. In severe cases, COVID-19 can cause pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome. People with chronic health conditions and the elderly are more likely than others to have a life-threatening case of the disease.


Why is the new coronavirus worse than the flu?

Although the seasonal flu can spread globally like the new coronavirus, the mortality rate is much lower and more people have immunity. In the latest flu season, October 2019 to April 2020, an estimated 39 to 56 million people in the U.S. had the flu. Though many fewer people have contracted COVID-19, Columbia University researchers estimate that the rate of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 has been six times that of the .1% death rate from the flu.


How can I prevent getting the new coronavirus?

The World Health Organization has the following recommendations for the general public to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses, including the new coronavirus:

  • Frequently clean your hands by using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. (Learn how to wash your hands properly!)
  • Practice physical distancing (formerly social distancing, here’s why!) by limiting your time in public places to essential trips, staying at least 6 feet from other people, and not greeting others with a handshake or other touch.
  • When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue. Then throw the tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.
  • If you have a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early and share your travel history with your healthcare provider.
  • Avoid the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products. Handle raw meat, milk, and animal organs with care to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, per good food safety practices.


Should I wear a mask?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that people wear face masks to help prevent spreading the virus to others, since some people who have COVID-19 may not have obvious symptoms of the disease. Authorities caution that wearing a cloth mask or one commonly used for household cleaning or construction is not a sure way to avoid contracting the disease.

Even when wearing a mask, you should avoid touching your face and continue to follow handwashing, physical distancing, and shelter-at-home orders for your location. Medical masks such as N-95 respirators should be reserved for medical personnel who really need them.

Be sure to follow best practices in how you wear, remove, and dispose of a mask, and wash your hands after removing it.


Can antibiotics prevent and treat the new coronavirus?

Like the common cold, there is no specific antibiotic or medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus. Antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria. But people infected should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive medical care, which may include antibiotics because bacterial co-infection is possible.


How did the new coronavirus start?

The National Health Commission in China informed the World Health Organization on Jan. 11 that the new coronavirus outbreak is linked with exposure to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan in December 2019. Coronaviruses are common in people and many species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rarely, animal coronaviruses infect people and then spread person-to-person, such as with MERSSARS, and this new coronavirus. All three of these viruses are betacoronaviruses, which have their origins in bats.


How are governments trying to control the spread of the virus?

As COVID-19 has spread around the world, governments have taken extraordinary measures to control the spread of the disease, both within countries and across borders. They’ve required the closing of nonessential businesses, required populations to shelter at home, and restricted travel. The World Health Organization has been working with governments to track the spread of the disease and advise health authorities.

As countries and communities respond to the virus by closing schools and places of work and imposing quarantines, along with people limiting public interaction, children and the very poor are being greatly impacted. Loss of work for people who survive on minimal earnings is having a devastating impact on household incomes where people survive from day to day. The price of food and goods will likely rise as shortages emerge and people begin to hoard supplies. Unable to stock up, the poorest will be hard-pressed to provide enough food for their children.


What is the difference between an outbreak, epidemic, and pandemic?

When even one case of COVID-19 is diagnosed in a new location and determined to be locally transmitted, it is an outbreak. When it spreads rapidly to many people, that is an epidemic. A pandemic occurs when it spreads globally. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.

What is a pandemic? According to the WHO, a pandemic can occur when three conditions have been met:

  1. A disease emerges that is new to the population.
  2. The virus infects humans, causing serious illness.
  3. The virus spreads easily and sustainably among humans. Most people will not have immunity to the virus.

The WHO is extremely careful about when to declare a pandemic. It seeks to avoid creating panic that a declaration can bring. However, a declaration can also spur countries and individuals into action to do more to prevent the spread of the virus.

Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza viruses. The 2009 swine flu pandemic is thought to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. With no vaccine currently available, containing the spread of COVID-19 is vital.


How is World Vision responding to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic?

World Vision is making the response to COVID-19 the top priority in every country where we work. We have launched a $350 million response to support 72 million people — half of them children — to combat the impacts of the virus. The ambitious response plan will be executed over 18 months in more than 70 countries where 37,000 World Vision staff, 400,000 faith leaders, and 220,000 community health workers are mobilizing to lead prevention and response initiatives.

The focus of our global response is through four programmatic areas of intervention, which will be adapted based on context and local need:

  1. Promotion of preventive measures to stop or slow the spread of the new coronavirus by promoting handwashing and respiratory hygiene, isolation, working with community health workers and digital channels to set up public handwashing stations and promote good water, sanitation, and hygiene behaviors, and distributing soap, sanitizer, and face masks where appropriate.
  2. Supporting health systems and workers by providing personal protective equipment including masks and gowns, treatment supplies such as thermometers, and training and equipping community health workers to help with home care for people infected, share stay-healthy messaging, and to help run isolation centers and transport for the sick.
  3. Multi-sector support for children impacted by the new coronavirus to address the disruption and increased stress on children’s families, friendships and the communities.
    1. Education: We are supporting government agencies for education to ensure safe school operations (promoting procedures for staff and students that become unwell along with information sharing and targeted age-specific health education). We are also providing support — home learning materials and activity packs — to children, families, and teachers to continue their education if schools are closed.
    2. Child protection: World Vision is raising awareness with child advocates and social workers, recommending registration and care protocols to prevent the separation and stigma of children and their caregiver(s) during treatment and isolation, providing psychological first aid for children and caregivers, and monitoring and responding to increases in child labor, begging, abuse, sexual violence, or neglect.
    3. Livelihoods: We are providing cash and vouchers along with distributing food and care packs for people in isolation.
  4. Collaborating and advocating to ensure the world’s response prioritizes and protects vulnerable children. World Vision is working with local, national, and global partners to ensure that children are prioritized in COVID-19 prevention and response efforts, that the most vulnerable children are protected from secondary effects including strain on health systems and school closures. We’re also advocating for pre-existing humanitarian assistance and child protection work to continue uninterrupted.

“With many cities on lockdown and livelihoods affected in many situations, it’s critical to ensure that people have the resources and knowledge to be able to care for themselves and their families, especially as children are vulnerable in such situations,” says John Teng, World Vision national director for China.

Our response includes providing face masks to communities and health workers, distributing hand sanitizers and other personal hygiene items, and supporting efforts by local health authorities, schools, and local partners to communicate stay-safe health messages.


How is World Vision responding in the U.S.?

World Vision is supplying Family Emergency Kits to vulnerable families from 13 strategic locations throughout the U.S., including Seattle, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. School districts identify families that qualify for free or reduced-cost school meals, and churches host the distributions. Each kit includes nutritious food for a family of five for a week, as well as hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, first-aid antiseptic, paper products, and children’s games and school supplies.

“We know that school closures mean limited or no access to food for a lot of families, and we want to do all we can to help in this time of need,” says Edgar Sandoval Sr., president of World Vision U.S. “It’s a unique time because we are seeing the impact of the crisis right in our own backyard — affecting our neighbors, schools, and churches. We want to bring hope like never before, trusting in God, uniting in prayer, and moving swiftly to help those who are the most vulnerable here in the U.S. and around the world.”

As of May 12, World Vision’s U.S. Programs had distributed 8,100 Family Emergency Kits, providing enough food for more than 600,000 meals. Distributions were piloted in Washington state, but are now happening across the country.

In Brooklyn and in the Bronx, where many families don’t have cars, people lined up outside churches to receive supplies. In West Virginia, World Vision staff distributed the kits in a county where the nearest grocery store is an hour’s drive away.

In the heart of downtown Chicago, families drove up outside Soul City Church where church volunteers quickly loaded packages into car trunks. “Everyone’s in the home, so now that means everyone’s going to run out of necessities like food, toiletries, things of that nature. Right now, most of the parents, most of the families, are just mainly concerned about how they’re going to get their next meal,” says Alan Conley, the director of Faith-Based Initiatives for Chicago Public Schools. “We can’t give anybody high fives because of the social distancing measures that are in place, but this kindness, the act of love will go a long way and help alleviate some of those fears that exist.”

World Vision has also distributed more than 187,000 items of personal protective equipment to medical partners and first responders. Supplies have gone to the Pacific Northwest; Houston, Texas; and the Navajo Nation, the nation’s largest Indian reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Through a longstanding partner in Albany, Georgia, a small town in southwestern Georgia where COVID-19 has hit especially hard, World Vision supplied 5,000 N-95 masks to Phoebe Putney Hospital.

Read stories from one of the first relief distributions in Washington state, when volunteers from Lake Burien Presbyterian Church placed emergency kits into car trunks for families who drove through their parking lot to pick them up.

Please consider donating today to help procure, ship, and distribute emergency protective supplies for preventing the spread of the new coronavirus in the United States.


How is the pandemic affecting World Vision’s operations?

World Vision staff are having to adapt and adjust every day to rapid changes because of COVID-19. In some places, we’ve had to call a temporary halt to cash and food distributions and cancel in-person training. But even when staff can’t go to communities, World Vision’s long-term community presence and relationships are proving resilient. We’re also supporting health, child protection, and advocacy at the community level through hundreds of thousands of faith leaders, child health workers, and other local volunteers, including 54,000 savings groups. Using innovative digital platforms, we’re providing information and training and collecting health data.


What are World Vision’s concerns for children and communities we work with?

We are most concerned about countries where the health systems and monitoring are weak, where people may already be suffering from diseases that are common among the poor, such as malariatuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV and AIDS, and Ebola, or where severe malnutrition compromises immune systems. People living in these contexts are at much greater risk. Countries with effective health systems are in a much better position to monitor, identify, and treat people with the respiratory disease, as well as to prevent its spread.


While children are not considered the most vulnerable to this virus, they are very vulnerable to the secondary effects that it creates, like the extra strain put on health facilities that are already poorly equipped. Children whose caregivers get sick or die will be at higher risk of malnutrition, diseases, abuse, and exploitation. As their caregivers become fearful and anxious about the outbreak, this can adversely affect children — as they observe their caregivers’ behaviors and emotions for cues on how to manage their own feelings.

From our experience working through the Zika and Ebola epidemics, we know these circumstances have the potential to force children into desperate situations, including dropping out of school and resorting to working, begging, or other exploitative situations to survive.

World Vision is working diligently to keep children safe. Through our child sponsorship programs, we are:

  1. Assessing local situations and responding in the most appropriate ways.
  2. Training staff, community volunteers, and partners on preventing COVID-19 and accessing care and treatment.
  3. Working with local health authorities and community organizations to spread accurate information about COVID-19 to families and communities.

“Encouraging practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among families and communities, helping support local health systems, and ensuring community safety nets exist to care for and protect vulnerable children are our main tools to fight the impact of this virus on sponsored children and their communities,” explains Jaisankar Sarma, head of child sponsorship field programming for World Vision.

Current child sponsors: Learn four things you can do to help your sponsored child during the coronavirus pandemic.


Novel coronavirus and COVID-19 timeline

December 2019

  • Dec. 31: In Wuhan, China, reports surface of people with pneumonia due to an unknown cause. Between Dec. 31 and Jan. 3, national authorities in China report 44 cases to the World Health Organization.

January 2020

  • Jan. 9: The first confirmed death from the outbreak occurs.
  • Jan. 11: The National Health Commission in China informs the WHO that the outbreak is linked with exposure to the seafood and live animal market in Wuhan. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities identify a novel (new) coronavirus.
  • Jan. 12: Chinese health officials share the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus for countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits.
  • Jan. 21: The WHO confirms 314 cases of the novel coronavirus, 309 of which are in China. Other countries reporting cases include Thailand, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. The CDC also confirms that a person in Washington state who returned from Wuhan on Jan. 15 tested positive for the respiratory disease. The death toll rises to six. Many people affected have underlying health issues, according to Reuters.
  • Jan. 24: Reported cases increase to 846 around the world. The majority, 830 cases, are in China. Singapore and Vietnam report their first cases, and a second case is identified in the U.S. — a person who lives in Illinois and recently visited Wuhan. The death toll increases to 25.
  • Jan. 25: The WHO confirms 1,320 cases globally. Australia, Nepal, and France report their first cases. A third U.S. case is identified in Orange County, California — a person who had recently traveled to Wuhan. Forty-one people have died so far, all in China.
  • Jan. 28: The total global cases jump to 4,593, with 4,537 in China. The death toll increases to 106, and three more countries — Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Germany — report cases.
    • WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping and commends China’s “seriousness and transparency” in response to the outbreak.
    • An airliner with about 210 U.S. citizens, mostly consulate personnel and their families, leaves Wuhan for the United States. Officials with the CDC recommend avoiding all travel to China and expand airport health screenings to 20 U.S. locations.
    • Scientists in Australia become the first to recreate the new coronavirus outside of China.
  • Jan. 30: The global case totals jump to 7,818, and with China accounting for 7,736. Outside of China, there have been 82 cases identified in 18 different countries. The WHO reports cases in Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and Finland. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte confirms Italy has its first two cases during a press conference.
    • The CDC confirms the first human-to-human transmission in the United States. The patient, a man in his 60s living in Illinois, is the spouse of a woman who recently visited Wuhan and was diagnosed with the disease on Jan. 24. President Donald Trump announces the formation of a coronavirus task force to lead America’s response to the outbreak.
    • The WHO emergency committee makes a nearly unanimous decision to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

February 2020

March 2020

  • March 11: The WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
  • March 12: The global case total of the COVID-19 pandemic reaches more than 128,000 people, with the death toll now at more than 4,700 people.
  • March 16: Coronavirus vaccine testing begins in the U.S. Even if the research goes well, a vaccine wouldn’t be available for widespread use for 12 to 18 months, says Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
  • March 17: Coronavirus cases are now present in all 50 U.S. states.
  • March 26: The overall number of cases pass 550,000 worldwide, with more than 175 countries reportedly affected by the pandemic. The U.S. also now leads the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases.
  • April 1: More than 200,000 people in the U.S. have been infected.
  • April 2: Cases worldwide top 1 million.
  • April 11: Cases in the U.S. surpass 500,000.
  • April 27: Cases worldwide reach 3 million, with 185 countries now affected.

May 2020

  • May 1: India extends its nationwide lockdown for two more weeks, making life harder for the 81% of its population working at informal jobs.
  • May 9: Cases worldwide top 4 million.
  • May 11: COVID-19 cases on the African continent exceed 40,000.

July 2020

  • July 8: Cases in the U.S. surpass 3 million. Globally, the coronavirus has infected more than 11.8 million.



Heather Klinger and Sevil Omer of World Vision’s U.S. staff contributed to this article.

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