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Epidemic versus pandemic

In case there is anyone out there who’s been living under a total information blackout for the last month or more, the world is experiencing a pandemic.

Now you might think that the shelter-at-home orders under which The Legal Genealogist and so many others are living would mean that there’s a whole lot more time to focus on this blog.

And you’d be right — as long as you’re thinking only about the issue of time commitments.

But adding in the issue of time sinks — those minor little factors like the distraction of a 24/7 news cycle, family, friends, and even former classmates being diagnosed, and a recently-discovered free one-year subscription to Disney+ because of my wireless plan, and — well… you get the idea.

Still, considering the circumstances, what could be more appropriate than a dose of 2020 alphabet soup and, since we’re up to the letter E, looking at the word epidemic? And, of course, how it is, or isn’t, different from the word pandemic.

2020 letter E

Only the word epidemic is covered in the legal dictionaries: “This term, in its ordinary and popular meaning, applies to any disease which is widely spread or generally prevailing at a given place and time.”1 The word pandemic doesn’t appear there or in other early law dictionaries at all.2

You have to use a modern dictionary to get to the meaning of pandemic: “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”3 Which doesn’t seem much different from that dictionary’s definition of epidemic: “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time.”4

Both terms have been around for centuries — Merriam-Webster says they both can be seen in published works as far back as the 1600s5 — but the difference is one of scope:

An epidemic is defined as “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” A pandemic is a type of epidemic (one with greater range and coverage), an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. While a pandemic may be characterized as a type of epidemic, you would not say that an epidemic is a type of pandemic.6

Neither term is truly a legal term — and you generally won’t find those words being used in, for example, the federal laws of the United States. What you will find, more commonly, are references to things like “disease” or “quarantine.”

The first such reference in federal law came in 1796, when, by statute, the federal government provided that “the President of the United States be, and he is hereby authorized, to direct the revenue officers and the officers commanding forts and revenue cutters, to aid in the execution of quarantine, and also in the execution of the health laws of the states, respectively, in such manner as may to him appear necessary.”7

That was repealed and a more comprehensive statute enacted in 1799 when Congress passed “An Act respecting Quarantine and Health Laws.”8 It began by providing that all federal officers — whether military or civilian — were to abide by and help aid in the execution of the quarantine and health laws of the states as directed by the Secretary of the Treasury. Treasury was chosen of course since that was the department with control over the revenue collectors and revenue cutters.9

That same statute went on to provide for the potential that “by the prevalence of any contagious or epidemical disease, in or near the place by law established, as the port of entry for any collection district,” it might become too dangerous for the collection officers to act, and, in that case, those officers could be moved to another less dangerous location.10

That same statute allowed any federal judge “within whose district any contagious or epidemical disease shall at any time prevail, so as in his opinion, to endanger the life or lives of any person or persons confined in the prison of such district,” to order the federal prisoners in his district moved to the next adjacent district.11

In case of “the prevalence of a contagious or epidemical disease at the seat of government,” that statute made it “lawful for the President of the United States to permit and direct the removal of any or all the public offices to such other place or places as, in his discretion, shall be deemed most safe and convenient for conducting the public business.”12 And it provided authority to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to move any session of the court “whenever, in the opinion of the chief justice, … a contagious sickness shall render it hazardous to hold the next stated session of the said court at the seat of government.”13

The topic wasn’t mentioned again until 1829, when there was a reference in a statute governing the about-to-be-opened District of Columbia penitentiary. It required that “the warden and other officers shall take the strictest precautions to guard against the introduction of any infectious or contagious disease, from the persons or clothing of such convicts…”14

And it wasn’t until 1879 that the first National Board of Health was created by Congress “to obtain information upon all matters affecting the public health, to advise the several departments of the government, the executives of the several States, and the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, on all questions submitted by them, or whenever in the opinion of the board such advice may tend to the preservation and improvement of the public health.”15

So … what’s the difference — legally — between an epidemic and a pandemic?

Absolutely nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Nada. Not one thing.

So now you know.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2020 alphabet soup: E is for…,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 3 Apr 2020).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 425-426, “epidemic.”
  2. The first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary jumps from pamphlet laws to pandects (a compilation of Roman laws). Ibid., 865. Another early classic dictionary jumps from palfridus (a palfrey) to pandects. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1856), II: 278.
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 3 Apr 2020), “pandemic.”
  4. Ibid., “epidemic.”
  5. “Usage Notes: ‘Pandemic’ vs ‘Epidemic’ — How they overlap and where they differ,” ( : accessed 3 Apr 2020).
  6. Ibid.
  7. “An Act relative to Quarantine,” 1 Stat. 474 (27 May 1796).
  8. “An Act respecting Quarantine and Health Laws,” 1 Stat. 619 (25 Feb 1799).
  9. Ibid., §1.
  10. §4.
  11. Ibid., §5.
  12. Ibid., §6.
  13. Ibid., §6, at 620-621.
  14. “An Act concerning the government and discipline of the penitentiary in the District of Columbia,” 4 Stat. 365 (3 Mar 1829), 367.
  15. §2, “An Act to prevent the introduction of infections or contagious diseases into the United States, and to establish a National Board of Health,” 20 Stat. 484 (3 March 1879).
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