When the world celebrated the dawn of a new decade with a blaze of firework parties and revelry on January 1, few could have imagined what 2020 had in store.
In the last 12 months, the novel coronavirus has paralysed 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.
More than 1.6 million people died. At least 72 million people are known to have contracted the virus, though the actual number is likely much higher. Children became orphans, grandparents were lost and partners bereaved as loved ones died alone in hospital, bedside visits considered too dangerous to risk.
“This is a pandemic experience that’s unique in the lifetime of every single person on Earth,” says Sten Vermund, infectious disease epidemiologist and dean of Yale School of Public Health. “Hardly any of us haven’t been touched by it.”
Covid-19 is far from the deadliest pandemic in history. Bubonic plague in the 14th Century wiped out a quarter of the population. At least 50 million succumbed to Spanish Influenza in 1918-19. Thirty-three million people died of AIDS.
But contracting coronavirus is as simple as breathing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I went to the gate of hell and came back,” said Wan Chunhui, a 44-year-old Chinese survivor who spent 17 days in hospital. “I saw with my own eyes that others failed to recover and died, which has had a big impact on me.”
The scale of the global disaster was scarcely imaginable when on December 31, Chinese authorities announced 27 cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown origin” that was baffling doctors in the city of Wuhan.
The next day, authorities quietly shut the Wuhan animal market initially linked to the outbreak. On January 7, Chinese officials announced they had identified the new virus, calling it 2019-nCoV.
On January 11, China announced the first death in Wuhan. Within days, cases flared across Asia, in France and the United States.
By the end of the month, countries were airlifting foreigners out of China. Borders around the world started to close and more than 50 million people living in Wuhan’s province of Hubei were in quarantine.