When the world celebrated the dawn of a new decade with a blaze of fireworks and festivities on January 1, few could have imagined what 2020 had in store.
In the past 12 months, the novel coronavirus has crippled economies, devastated communities and confined nearly four billion people to their homes. It has been a year that changed the world like no other for at least a generation, possibly since World War II.
Over 1.6 million people have died. At least 72 million people are known to have contracted the virus, although the actual number is likely much higher. Children were orphaned, grandparents lost and partners bereaved as loved ones died alone in hospital, with bedside visits deemed too dangerous to risk.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic experience in the life of every person on Earth,” says Sten Vermund, infectious disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health. “Almost none of us were touched by this. ”
Covid-19 is far from the deadliest pandemic in history. The bubonic plague in the 14th century wiped out a quarter of the population. At least 50 million people died of the Spanish flu in 1918-19. Thirty-three million people have died of AIDS.
But contracting coronavirus is as easy as breathing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I went to Hell’s Gate and came back,” said Wan Chunhui, a 44-year-old Chinese survivor who spent 17 days in the hospital. “I saw with my own eyes that the others did not recover and died, which had a big impact on me. ”
The scale of the global catastrophe was hardly imaginable when, on December 31, Chinese authorities announced 27 cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown origin” that baffled doctors in Wuhan city.
The next day, authorities quietly shut down the Wuhan animal market initially linked to the outbreak. On January 7, Chinese authorities announced that they had identified the new virus, calling it 2019-nCoV. On January 11, China announced the first death in Wuhan. Within days, cases broke out in Asia, France and the United States.
At the end of the month, countries were airlifting foreigners out of China. Borders around the world began to close and more than 50 million people living in Wuhan’s Hubei Province were under quarantine.
– New disease, lockdown –
AFP footage of a man lying on his back outside a Wuhan furniture store, wearing a face mask and holding a plastic bag, summed up the fear in the city. AFP could not confirm the cause of his death at the time. Emblematic of horror and claustrophobia was also the Diamond Princess cruise ship on which more than 700 people eventually contracted the virus and 13 died.
As the horror goes global, the vaccine race has already started. A small German biotech company called BioNTech quietly put aside its cancer work and started another project. Her name? ” Speed of light “.
On February 11, the World Health Organization named the new disease Covid-19. Four days later, France reported the first confirmed death outside Asia. Europe watched in horror as northern Italy turned into an epicenter.
“It’s worse than war,” said Orlando Gualdi, mayor of the Lombard village of Vertova in March, where 36 people died in 25 days. “It is absurd to think that there could be such a pandemic in 2020.”
Italy first, then Spain, France and Great Britain were blocked. WHO has declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic. American borders, already closed to China, closed much of Europe. For the first time in peacetime, the Summer Olympics have been delayed.
As of mid-April, 3.9 billion people, or half of humanity, were living in some form of lockdown. From Paris to New York, from Delhi to Lagos, and from London to Buenos Aires, the streets were strangely silent, the too frequent whine of ambulance sirens, a reminder that death was near.
Scientists had warned for decades of a global pandemic, but few were listening. Some of the richest countries in the world, let alone the poorest, were struggling with an invisible enemy. In a globalized economy, supply chains have come to a standstill. Supermarket shelves have been laid bare by panicked shoppers.
Chronic underinvestment in healthcare has been brutally exposed, with hospitals struggling to cope and intensive care units quickly overwhelmed. Underpaid and overworked doctors fought without personal protective equipment.
“I graduated in 1994 and government hospitals were completely neglected back then,” said Nilima Vaidya-Bhamare, a doctor in Mumbai, India, one of the worst affected countries. “Why does it take a pandemic to wake people up? She asked in May.
In New York City, the city with more billionaires than any other, doctors have been photographed carrying garbage bags. A field hospital has been erected in Central Park. Mass graves have been dug on Hart Island.
– ‘Absolute calamity’ –
“It’s a scene from a horror movie,” said Virgilio Neto, mayor of Manaus in Brazil. “We are no longer in a state of emergency but rather in an absolute calamity. Bodies piled into refrigerated trucks and bulldozers dug mass graves.
Closed businesses. Schools and colleges are closed. Live sport has been canceled. Commercial air travel suffered the most severe contraction in history. Shops, clubs, bars and restaurants closed. The lockdown in Spain was so severe that children could not leave the house. People were suddenly trapped, cheek by jowl, in small apartments for weeks.
Those who could, worked from home. Zoom calls have replaced meetings, business trips and parties. Those whose jobs were not transferable were often made redundant or forced to risk their health and their jobs anyway.
In May, the pandemic destroyed 20 million American jobs. The pandemic and global recession could bring the number of people living in extreme poverty to 150 million by 2021, the World Bank has warned.
Social inequalities, which had grown for years, were exposed as never before. Hugs, handshakes and kisses fell by the wayside. Human interaction took place behind the plexiglass, face masks, and hand sanitizer.
Cases of domestic violence have exploded, as have mental health issues. As the empowered city dwellers congratulated themselves on overcoming the pandemic in lavish second homes in the countryside and governments struggled, spirits bubbled among the city prisoners and rage spread through the streets.
The United States, the world’s largest economy and a country without universal health care, quickly became the hardest hit country. More than 300,000 people have died as President Donald Trump pooped the threat and touted questionable treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and pitched the idea of injecting disinfectant.
In May, he launched Operation Warp Speed, with the US government spending $ 11 billion to develop a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the year. Trump touted it as the biggest American company since the creation of the atomic bomb in World War II.
Even the rich and powerful could not buy immunity. In October, Trump contacted Covid-19, as did Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro in July. Trump’s response to the pandemic likely helped cost him the election to Joe Biden. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent three days in the intensive care unit with coronavirus in April.
Movie star Tom Hanks and his wife fell ill. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest footballers of his generation, tennis champion Novak Djokovic, Madonna, Prince Charles and Prince Albert II have all tested positive.
– 2021 vaccination campaign –
As the year draws to a close, governments are set to clear millions of people, starting with the elderly, doctors and the most vulnerable before embarking on mass campaigns touted as the only way to get back to a normal life.
In December, Britain became the first Western country to approve a vaccine for general use, and then to deploy the inoculation developed in the BioNTech laboratory in cooperation with the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The United States quickly followed suit and regulatory approval is expected in Europe by the end of the month.
“If I can have it at 90, you can have it too,” said Margaret Keenan, the British grandmother who became the first person to receive the approved Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine.
As rich countries rush to buy stocks, 2021 will likely see China and Russia battling for influence by expanding their own cheaper vaccines beyond their borders.
The extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic will leave a lasting legacy is far from clear. Some experts warn that it would take years to build herd immunity through mass vaccination, especially in the face of entrenched anti-vax beliefs in some countries. Others predict that lives could return to normal by the middle of next year.
Many expect a more flexible approach to working from home, greater reliance on technology, and supply chains that become more local. Travel will likely resume, but speed is uncertain. The disease can weaken otherwise healthy young people for months.
If working from home for white collar workers remains common practice, what will happen to commercial real estate in downtown cities? Could urban centers start to become depopulated as people, who are no longer linked by commuting, move away in search of greener or calmer lifestyles?
The impact on civil liberties is also of concern. Think tank Freedom House says democracy and human rights have deteriorated in 80 countries as governments abuse power in their response to the virus.
Others predict that the fear of large crowds could have far-reaching consequences, at least for public transport, cultural, sporting and entertainment venues, and the cruise ship industry.
“I think there are going to be profound changes in our society,” warned Vermund of the Yale School of Public Health.
The global economy is also in bad shape. The IMF has warned of a worse recession than the one that followed the 2008 financial crisis. But for many, the pandemic is just a dot on the long-term horizon of a far more deadly calamity, many more difficult and life changing.
“Covid-19 was kind of a big wave that hit us, and behind it is the tsunami of climate change and global warming,” says astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell whose 2014 book “The Knowledge” explains how the world can be rebuilt after a disaster.
© 2020 AFP