From December 2019, when an unknown virus was found in China, to the release of vaccines for Covid-19, it has been an extraordinary year. Here’s how the momentum shifted
A ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’
The world is preparing to celebrate the end of a tumultuous decade gathered together at New Year’s Eve parties. At several hospitals in Wuhan, a central Chinese industrial city, the atmosphere is far from festive. Doctors are holding an emergency symposium to discuss the treatment of more than two dozen patients presenting with a “pneumonia of unknown cause”.
A local media report – picked up by an international disease-monitoring service – says all of those who have fallen sick appear to have visited a seafood market in Wuhan. The site has been sealed. The patients are said to have high fevers, signs of pneumonia and are not responding to antibiotics. Rumours spread across the city that Sars has re-emerged.
The outbreak receives little attention abroad, though some national authorities contact the World Health Organization for more information, which the WHO requests from Beijing the next day. Studies later will suggest that Covid-19 had been spreading in Hubei province for at least six weeks, and may have already surfaced in France and Italy.
‘Human-to-human transmission is certain’
A Chinese respiratory expert, Zhong Nanshan, tells state media in a late-night announcement that the novel coronavirus – already confirmed to have killed three people – has surfaced among people who never visited the Wuhan seafood market, which means the virus can spread among people. “We can say it is certain that it is a human-to-human transmission phenomenon,” Zhong says.
It is dire news, and confirms what health authorities elsewhere already suspected, after virus cases were detected in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the US in recent days. Donald Trump received his first briefing on 18 January, but is said to have been distracted, interrupting to ask about a ban on flavoured vaping products.
Questions are already being raised about China’s handling of the outbreak. Senior officials in the country knew that human-to-human transmission was “possible” at least six days before Zhong’s announcement, according to records from a meeting obtained by the Associated Press. In public, however, they continued to say the risk that humans could give each other the virus was “low”, and allowed crowded events in Wuhan to go ahead.
After weeks of being ravaged by the virus – recording more than 66,000 cases and 1,500 deaths – China appears to be flattening the curve. It credits drastic measures yet unseen in the west: sealing off Wuhan from the rest of the country, limiting the movement of people in dozens of other cities and rapidly testing tens of millions of its citizens.
But as the virus recedes in China, it is quietly spreading elsewhere. Europe has recorded its first death, an 80-year old Chinese man who had recently returned to Paris. A man has tested positive for the virus in Egypt, the first case on the African continent. The UK has recorded nine positive cases, but eight have recovered and are released from hospital. “This is evidence of how well prepared our NHS is to deal with the Wuhan coronavirus,” the health secretary, Matt Hancock, says.
At the White House, Trump has been warned the virus will be the biggest threat of his presidency. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face,” his top national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, tells him, according to reporting by the US journalist Bob Woodward. But the US president continues to dismiss the risk in public. “By April, you know in theory when it gets a little warmer, [the virus] miraculously goes away,” Trump tells a rally.
Italy’s ‘darkest hour’
Exhausted doctors, overwhelmed mortuaries and more than a thousand new cases every day: Covid-19 has plunged Italy into what the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, says is the nation’s “darkest hour”.
The virus has already torn through China and Iran, but it is the scenes from Italy and the nationwide lockdown it announces on 9 March that ram home the full scale of what the world is facing. Stock markets have their worst day since the 2008 financial crisis amid fears of another global recession.
The UK has suffered its first coronavirus death, a woman in her 70s. Downing Street says the virus is now likely to spread “in a significant way”.
The week the world shut down
“We are at war,” the French president, Emmanuel Macron, tells his country in a television address announcing the strictest limits on public life since the second world war. The daily rate of cases being detected around the world has increased tenfold since the beginning of the month. Australia has asked its nationals to come home immediately. Free movement across Europe is halted.
Britain’s prime minister receives modelling from Imperial College London that shows that without decisive intervention to break the transmission of the virus, it could kill half a million people in the UK. Boris Johnson will announce a lockdown within a week.
Soon, so will the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, ordering his 1.3bn citizens to stay at home to “save India”. Migrant workers elect to return to their home villages, sparking the largest movement of people since partition in 1947. If it was not clear before, it has become so now: the world has entered a new era, confronting a disease it still barely understands, and implementing emergency policies that would have been unthinkable only weeks before.
Boris Johnson is moved to intensive care
The virus has already infected high-profile figures such as Tom Hanks, Prince Charles and Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister. But the announcement that Boris Johnson has tested positive for Covid-19 creates shockwaves, underscoring a sense of national vulnerability.
When Johnson is admitted to intensive care 11 days after his diagnosis, the mood turns dire. It is suddenly unclear who is leading the UK’s response to its worst crisis in decades. The country is glued to updates on Johnson’s condition and bracing for the worst.
After a nerve-racking few days, the prime minister is moved from intensive care and begins his recovery. In a statement praising NHS staff, he suggests his survival was not always guaranteed. “I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life,” he says.
Unprecedented measures have placed half of humanity into some form of quarantine – but they have worked. New Covid-19 cases and deaths have plunged across Europe, east Asia has broken the back of the virus, and a feared surge in African cases has failed to materialise. One by one, countries begin rolling back restrictions on businesses and travel. Airport terminals in Paris and London reopen. There are optimistic predictions that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, though vaccines could still be at least a year away.
At the same time, the virus’s economic impact is coming into view. The US unemployment rate soared in May to 14.7%, its highest rate since the Great Depression.
The UK’s fall in GDP is the largest since record-keeping started. In developing countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, 15 years of gains against poverty have been wiped out in months.