How COVID-19 brought world to its knees

All being well, the global fight against coronavirus will finally begin to turn this Thursday, when the first jabs of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine are expected to be administered in both the United States and Britain.

In the US, the vaccinations come as the nation braces for more cases and even more fatalities in the wake of the Thanksgiving holiday, adding to an already gruesome death tally of 275,000. Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the White House coronavirus Task Force, has warned of a "surge upon a surge" in new cases.

But those jabs should turn a battle that has been, up until now, a total bust for the human race.

The virus has been suppressed in a few pockets, like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, but it has rampaged most places, destroying hopes and taking 1.5 million lives so far.

Time and again, worst case scenarios have prevailed. There were optimistic forecasts the virus would fade with the coming of the northern summer, like SARS in 2003; others thought herd immunity or miracle drugs like hydroxychloroquine would eventually stop it. All those hopes came to nought.


Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, New York City, April 9. Picture: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, New York City, April 9. Picture: AP Photo/John Minchillo


A more recent suggestion, that the virus is slowing down, may not hold up to scientific scrutiny either.

"There's no real evidence that the virus has changed massively in terms of its virulence; it's pretty much acting in the same way it's always acted," Melbourne epidemiologist Hassan Vally told News Corp.

The Associate Professor from La Trobe University said while the mortality rate is coming down, that might actually be more about what we are doing than what the virus is doing.

"If you're only testing those who have severe disease, you'll get a very high mortality rate, and that's certainly what we saw very early on, especially in places like Italy that got overwhelmed," he said.






The origins of the virus are still being contested, but Professor Peter Collingnon, infectious diseases expert at the ANU, says there is compelling evidence the virus was in Paris in December 2019.

"There's no doubt it was circulating in Wuhan in October/November, and probably earlier," he said. "China must have known it was person-to-person (transmission) well by December. They'd already had the outbreak. That misled a lot of people."

Beijing also failed to restrict air travel until after the Chinese New Year on January 25, Prof Collingnon said, adding that a flight from Wuhan might have taken the virus to Milan. Italy confirmed its first case on January 29.

While some of the images from the Wuhan outbreak were alarming - hospitals erected in just over a week, and the doors of infected people being welded shut - there is an enduring suspicion that Beijing never told the full story about this big new disease with a little name. (Even today, China claims just over 4600 COVID-19 fatalities, putting it officially at number 38 on the tally board of coronavirus deaths per nation.)

But whatever China's failures, others argue they were soon compounded by the World Health Organisation and other agencies.

"We have seen WHO initially denying the pandemic, denying person to person transmission, then denying asymptomatic transmission, and then denying airborne transmission, always far behind the scientific evidence," Professor Raina MacIntyre from the University of NSW said.

"We have seen public health agencies suggest that contact tracing was not needed, displaying complete ignorance about the fundamentals of epidemic control. So there has been a lot of smoke and mirrors."



But there was no masking the horror of the virus when it hit Italy. Within two months of the country's first confirmed case, nearly a thousand people were dying every day. Again there were shocking images - nurses collapsed from exhaustion, deserted Venetian piazzas, churches filled with coffins - and the horror deepened when it emerged that Italian doctors were being advised to prioritise younger patients over the elderly, as intensive care units became inundated.

The virus quickly metastasised around the globe. Eighteen countries reported cases by the end of January. By mid March it was 121.


February brought with it a slew of first deaths: Spain and Japan on the 13th; Iran on the 19th; South Korea on the 20th; France on the 26th; the USA on the 29th.

And the news only got more shocking. March 8: Italy became the first country to enter full lockdown. March 16: the Dow Jones suffered its biggest drop in history. March 24: Japan postponed the Tokyo Olympics.


Landmark locations around the world emptied as lockdowns became ubiquitous and tourism ground to a halt. From Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing to St Peter's Square in Rome and New York's Times Square, public spaces became eerily devoid of their public.

Airline passenger numbers dropped by nearly 2.9 billion for the year, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, prompting major airlines to stop operations. The cruise industry dropped anchor entirely after a string of disasters, most notably a failed quarantine on board the Diamond Princess while it sat off the port of Yokohama; in the end nearly 20 per cent of its 3700 passengers and crew would test positive for COVID-19.




Global carbon emissions dropped by 17 per cent by April, according to Australia's CSIRO, while NASA satellite photos showed remarkable improvements in air quality. India's Taj Mahal looked its best in years after a 60 per cent drop in pollution.

The absence of humans created effects that nobody saw coming. Coyotes were spotted on the streets of San Francisco, while in Thailand, the drop in tourist numbers led to mass brawls among the monkey population for food scraps.

Celebrities testing positive provided further shocks. First it was Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson on March 11, then Prince Charles on March 25, and then Boris Johnson on March 27.

The British Prime Minister's near death experience was just one dramatic moment in a year of them. The UK chose first not to rush into harsh lockdowns, arguing compliance fatigue would weaken the effect of tough measures when they were needed the most, before abandoning the strategy as cases and deaths skyrocketed. According to data from John Hopkins University, today the UK has the third-worst case to fatality ratio, behind Mexico and Iran.

Sweden's light-touch response to the outbreak was hailed by some commentators who despaired as the world's economies nosedived - but the experiment was a failure, said Assoc Prof Vally.

"The other countries in Scandinavia are about a similar size, and all of them went into lockdown and Sweden didn't, so you can compare the outcome - and pretty much on every measure Sweden has done worse, and in terms of death it's done terribly, so I think history will show that the Swedish approach was wrong. The fact that they have changed their approach speaks to that," he said.


Others might posit the US as a perfect example of how not to respond to a pandemic.

March 31 modelling predicted US fatalities could end up being between 100,000 and 240,000, but that upper limit was surpassed in November, and it's still climbing.

While President Donald Trump was criticised for downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak, suggesting untested cures, criticising the scientists who could assist in the fight, and singlehandledy turning mask-wearing into a party-political statement, it should be noted that popular rallies on both the left (for Black Lives Matter) and the right (against state lockdowns) probably contributed to the further spread of the disease.

And Trump's COVID-19 response was not unique. Brazil's Jair Bolsanaro and Mexico's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador were slammed for failing to slow the disease as death tolls shot up. In a November press conference, Bolsanaro chided Brazilians for being "a country of sissies" because "everyone is going to die".

While Trump himself fought off the virus not long after he tested positive in October, COVID-19 would play a massive role in his electoral defeat in November.

One week later, the first results of final vaccine trials filtered through, offering real hope for the first time in 2020.


But the situation remains desperate in most countries. Second national lockdowns ended in UK and France this week, but new cases per day were still over 4000 in the former and 12,000 in the latter. (England will instead move to a three-tier system of restrictions.)

Spain, Italy, Turkey and Lebanon have all implemented curfews, while Germany is continuing its partial lockdown.

With global infections still going up at more than half a million every day, all hopes are pinned on the vaccines.

Assoc Prof Vally said their speedy arrival would vindicate science at the end of a year in which it has been tested like never before.

"There have been a lot of vocal anti-science people, but they are in the minority and people have shown when there is a threat like this, they want to hear from scientists, and people respected politicians who deferred to the scientists," he said.

"To get these vaccines in the time that they have taken so far has been nothing short of brilliant. And that's taken scientists, governments and pharmaceutical companies to all work together for the greater good."

Originally published as How COVID-19 brought world to its knees