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How a Virus Stalled the World: A Look Back at the Pandemic Year of 2020

Passengers arrive at the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord train station in Paris. (Image for representation)

Passengers arrive at the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord train station in Paris. (Image for representation)

As scientists and researchers frantically looked for solutions, there was a gradual yet steady glimmer of hope. In December first week, just before the year ends, Britain became the first country to approve and roll out a vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.

SARS-CoV2, which causes the novel coronavirus disease, Covid-19, hit the globe like a storm this year. Over the past 12 months, globally, the contagion has infected over 80 million and counting, and has claimed nearly two million lives.

On December 31, 2019, the China office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) received a report of a previously-unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. Reports said it first surfaced in a wet market in the city in November 2019. Authorities quietly shut down the market. On January 7, 2020, Chinese officials announced they had identified the new virus, calling it 2019-nCoV, which was later renamed SARS-CoV2.

The reports gave no indication that the mystery virus would unleash a terror on such a big scale that the world would shut down and put half of humanity in lockdowns. On January 11, China reported its first death, a 67-year old Wuhan man, who had visited the seafood market.

By January 23, China cut off ground zero Wuhan and its neighbouring cities from the rest of the world, placing 50 million people in quarantine. Buses, subways and ferries services within the city were suspended, air and rail travel discontinued. The deathly silence on Wuhan streets, eerily, resembled a scene from Steven Soderbergh’s Hollywood film Contagion.

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India started airlifting its nationals from Wuhan on February 1 when China reported 17 deaths. In two weeks, Li Wenliang, the whistleblower Chinese doctor who was made a villain for exposing his country’s mishandling of the health crisis, died of Covid.

The worst-hit United States alone has reported nearly 20 million Covid infections and the death toll has crossed 300,000. India ranks second, next to the US. So far, over ten million cases have been reported and nearly 1,50,000 Indians have fallen prey to the viral outbreak. The virus was particularly cruel on senior citizens. Masks, sanitizers had become household items and work from home (WFH) the new normal.

More than half the known cases of Covid in February, outside China, were on the cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. She was quarantined in Yokohama harbour after a passenger tested positive. Over 3600 passengers were on board, 700 were infected, and 14 died.

On February 14, France announced the first Covid-19 death in Europe. It also coincided with the mounting death toll in China. Hubei province accounted for the bulk of the fatalities. In 10 days, the virus spread like wildfire in Italy, first in Milan then in the Lombardy region. Hospitals were overwhelmed and a large number of geriatrics died.

While Italy was the hotspot in Europe, Iran emerged as a second focal point in February. By the end of February, Brazil reported its first case and the US reported its first death.

WHO belatedly declared it a global pandemic on March 11. On March 13, US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. Gatherings of 50 or more were barred and New York closed its public schools. On March 24, Tokyo Olympics was delayed by a year. In Olympics history, the Games were cancelled only thrice before and each time because of two World Wars.

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On March 26, the US officially reported the maximum number of infections, surpassing China and Italy. Moscow, too, saw a big spike in cases and hospitalisation doubled in a week’s time. In May, right-wing protests broke out in many American cities demanding easing of restrictions. By June, the number of known cases across the globe grew much faster, with more than 100,000 new infections a day. By mid-June, outbreaks in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the US continued to drive the global viral caseload.

India reported its first case on January 30, a Kerala youth who had returned from Wuhan and its first death on March 12, a 76-year-old man from Kalburgi in coastal Karnataka, who had come from Saudi Arabia earlier in the year.

Janata Curfew was observed on March 22, as a test case for restrictions and all domestic flights were grounded two days later. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown from March 25 till April 14, which was later extended till May 3 as cases soared. The strict lockdown took its toll on businesses and the poor and migrant workers were the hardest hit. Rendered jobless, they set off for their home towns. Migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres along highways to reach their native villages became a defining image of the pandemic, prompting the government to organise buses and trains.

The Centre announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore package to help the poor and another stimulus package, called Atmanirbhar, worth Rs 20 lakh crore. While big cities - New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Ahmedabad - saw a massive spike by May end, infections rapidly rose in villages as migrant workers reached their homes and activities started reopening in a phased manner in June.

India eased restrictions in the first week of September. All activities, except schools and colleges, restarted. Market places are already bustling and traffic jams are back to pre-pandemic days, with people desperate to reclaim their normal lives. Migrant workers have started returning to their workplaces in droves. Though offices, both government and private, are operating with reduced staff strength, India is back in business. While Dharavi reported zero case in last week of the year, infections have come down drastically in many Indian states. The fear is gone.

School children are worst hit by the pandemic. While children in cities are carrying on with their online education, in rural areas kids have little or no access to smart devices such as laptops and smartphones. They are either dependent on local private tuitions or simply sitting at home. Never before, children had to miss school for one full academic year. The United Nations said about 1.5 billion children were affected by school closures worldwide.

Covid is no respecter of the rich and powerful. It claimed the lives of former President Pranab Mukherjee, veteran Congress leaders Tarun Gogoi and Ahmed Patel, chef Floyd Cardozo, playwright Terence McNally among others. Trump, who wore a mask for the first time in July after months of denial, contracted SARS-CoV-2 in October. Among those who recovered are Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, actor Tom Hanks, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, tennis player Novak Djokovic, singer Madonna, Prince Charles and Prince Albert II.

The virus has had a devastating impact on the global economy. Economies across the world crumbled under the weight of the lockdowns. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned in April that the global economy was headed for its worst downturn since the Great Depression. The meltdown was four times worse than the 2009 financial crisis. In just a few weeks, the pandemic rendered nearly 10 million Americans jobless. The lockdown shrunk India’s economy by 23.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2020-21. By mid-May, developed nations such as Japan and Germany were grappling with recession. The virus had a crippling impact on aviation, construction, automobile, hotel and hospitality industries. However, China’s economy was first to bounce back and the only economy to grow in 2020.

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Fragile health systems in developed nations are still struggling with inadequate beds, supplies and healthcare workers whereas countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and New Zealand have handled the pandemic well. In India, Covid claimed the lives of over 500 doctors, according to the Indian Medical Association.

As scientists and researchers frantically looked for solutions, there was a  gradual yet steady glimmer of hope.  In December first week, just before the year ends, Britain became the first country to approve and roll out a vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. Soon after, a new strain of the virus, 56 per cent more contagious and running rampant, has cast a pall over Christmas and New Year celebrations across the globe with flight cancellations to and from Britain, border sealings and stricter lockdowns in Europe.

Also Read: UK Approves Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine to Give the West Its First Shot Against Covid-19 , Rollout Next Week

Also Read: New Coronavirus Strain 56 Per cent More Contagious, to Cause More Deaths in Britain: Study

As 2020 draws to a close, vaccinations have started in the UK, US, UAE, Mexico and a few other countries and more regulatory approvals are coming in. India, too, is gearing up to vaccinate healthcare, frontline workers and the older population, providing a sliver line of hope.

Also Read: US Doctor Reports Serious Allergic Reaction After Getting Moderna’s Covid-19 Vaccine

Experts warn it could take years to build herd immunity through mass vaccination. And the fallout of the Covid-19 infection is being uncovered by the day.

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