23 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: A glossary of terms

7:18 pm on 23 March 2020

The virus causing death, disruption and disconnection across the world has added several new terms to the public lexicon which have spread into common use even more quickly.

Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of coronavirus.

Photo: 123rf / Devon Yudevonyu

To aid those who are out of the loop, cut down on misinformation and generally get everyone reading from the same songsheet (but certainly not all in the same room), here's a glossary of terms related to the Covid-19 coronavirus.


Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that include SARS, MERS and the common cold. 'Corona' means crown-like and can also refer to the roiling flares of gas around the Sun and other stars. The name applies to this group because of the viruses' shape.

The new - or novel - coronavirus can lead to pneumonia and other serious effects, is far more dangerous than a cold and easier to spread than SARS or MERS, so poses serious risk.


Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, isolated from a patient in the US. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab.

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, isolated from a patient in the US. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Photo: AFP / NIAID-NIH / PHANIE

The name of the disease caused by this new coronavirus that is spreading across the globe is Covid-19 or "coronavirus disease". It is a respiratory - or breathing - disease.

The World Health Organisation named it on 11 February, after weeks of deliberating on finding a name that was specific to the virus itself without linking it to something that could increase prejudice - like a specific place, country, population or animal, along with several other considerations.

"Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks," WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus said when announcing the name.


This is a fancy science term for "having two different illnesses at the same time". Covid-19 has been found to be particularly severe for people who have another illness or health issue.

Community transmission

This is where the spread of the virus is happening uncontrolled in the community - meaning, it's spreading not from overseas or from an identified case but between people in the community, perhaps without them knowing about it.


"A sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease-more than what's typically expected for the population in that area." (US Centres for Disease Control)


Defined as "the process or fact of isolating or being isolated". (Oxford English Dictionary)

See: Self-isolation


"Carries the same definition of epidemic, but is often used for a more limited geographic area." (US Centres for Disease Control)


"An epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, affecting a large number of people." (US Centres for Disease Control)

Panic buying

Empty supermarket shelves after news of the first New Zealand case of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Supermarket shelves were emptied the day after news of the first New Zealand case of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: Jo T Lawton / Supplied

This is the widespread buying of goods with the aim of stocking up in the face of perceived disaster: perhaps in case the supply chain fails, to have enough in case you need to be quarantined, or - the most malicious of reasons - to profit by reselling during times of scarcity.

So far, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected supermarkets in New Zealand, with people buying in bulk things like toilet paper, rice, tinned vegetables, bread, flour, yeast, and more. Medical supplies like face masks and hand sanitiser have also become more scarce, and garden centres have even been selling out of seedlings as people get into the garden so they can supply themselves.

Authorities have warned against the practice, assuring the public that supply chains for all these goods are secure. The risk is that people who do not have stockpiles or resources - particularly people who are poor or homeless - will be unable to get some of these essential goods. Doctors and dentists are worried the supply of face masks will mean they don't have enough themselves.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has advised people to just buy what they normally would.


Personal protective equipment. During the epidemic, this usually refers to face masks, hazard suits and other gear. WorkSafe defines it as "anything used or worn by a person (including clothing) to minimise risks to the person's health and safety".

"This may include respiratory protective equipment, hearing protection, eye protection, protective clothing, and safety harness systems."


Self-isolation is the practice of isolating oneself from others to avoid spreading the virus. Isolation and quarantine are basically words for the same thing. (Read more: Dos and and Don'ts of self-isolation)

The idea is that if you have the virus and are showing symptoms you can easily spread it through the water droplets from your breath, so if you are separated from others you won't spread it.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs)

People who should be isolated are:

  • People showing one of the symptoms
  • People who have been in contact with someone who has had it
  • People returning from overseas who may unknowingly have been exposed

The government's current advice is for these people to go into isolation for two weeks. If they show symptoms they may be tested and if they are confirmed to have the virus they can be treated in hospital.

People with symptoms are being asked to call the government's healthline instead of showing up at medical centres or hospitals.

Man working on notebook, with a fresh cup of tea or coffee. Home work concept.

Photo: 123RF


Technically, the virus which causes the disease Covid-19 is called SARS-CoV-2 (short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). The WHO named it that because it is related - but different to - the SARS coronavirus.

In non-scientific settings however, the WHO prefers to call it "the virus responsible for Covid-19" or "the Covid-19 virus" to avoid creating excess fear for populations that were affected by SARS.

Basically, unless you're a scientist, best to call it Covid-19.

Shelter-in-place order

In the US, states like California are ordering people to shelter in place. This is basically an order for people to self-isolate which is in effect for the entire state. They must stay at home as much as possible, and should not be out of the house unless getting food, petrol or other essentials for medical reasons.

Essential service providers like health professionals, police, firefighters, supermarket and grocery workers are still expected to go to work.

Social distancing vs physical distancing

Social distancing is one term being used to refer to the practice of keeping a minimum distance between people with the aim of curbing the risk of spreading infection between them. The government advises a two-metre distance if possible.

While isolation aims to avoid any contact with people, distancing is a safeguard for those who are still having contact with one another, to reduce the risk.

The term 'social distancing' has become widespread but is a bit of a misnomer - and there have been suggestions it should be instead called physical distancing. In these times when isolation is so prevalent, a complete lack of social contact is a risk to people's mental health.

As New Zealand's Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said: "A reminder that self-isolation does not mean social isolation; physical distancing does not mean social distancing. It's really important for mental wellbeing that we stay connected with each other, more so than ever. There are many ways to reach out to each other - through phones, social media, online contact - even if you can't visit them in person."

So, please use physical distancing, but stay socially connected.


Defined as: A state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed. (Oxford English Dictionary)

See: Self-isolation

Virtual consultation

Doctors in New Zealand are making plans to do consultations with their patients either over the phone or online, so people who may be sick with the virus are less likely to spread it to doctors - whose services are essential - or others in waiting rooms. People who have other illnesses are more at risk (See: Co-morbidity).

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs