2020: The year Covid-19 dominated headlines and politics

·5-min read

Some 80 million people worldwide were infected with Covid-19 in 2020. The illness became a pandemic after it emerged from China at the end of 2019. Once global, it impacted politics, diplomacy, incited worldwide racism and wreaked havoc on the world's economies. France suffered more than any other country in the EU.

Seven major pandemics have paralised the world since early last century. By far, the biggest took place occurred a century ago when the Spanish influenza killed close to 40 million people worldwide.

The Asian and Hong Kong Flus (1957 and 1968 respectively) cost the lives of some six million people. In 1997, 2003 and 2018 H5N1, or Avian Flu killed 400 people in China and Hong Kong, followed by the notorious Sars (400 dead) and Mers (855 dead) in 2002 and 2012.

Elsewhere, the H1N1 (influenza) virus in Mexico killed over 18,000 people in 2009 and 2010.

Covid-19 goes viral

The Covid-19 virus first emerged in China. In spite of later accusations, Beijing did report the illness early. The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission (WMHC) started reporting to the World Health Organization (WHO) on “a pulmonary disease” in a first statement on December 31, 2019, saying that 27 people had been infected after being in contact with the Huanan Fresh Seafood Market.

That market was closed on January 1. On January 5, Chinese scientists published the complete genome of what they called the "Wuhan seafood market pneumonia virus Wuhan-Hu-1," identifying it as a “novel coronavirus.”

In a fifth report on January 11, the WMHC said that 41 cases were found between December 8 and January 2, but that after January 3, no new cases were detected.

The WHO then issued a statement on January 12 saying that 41 cases of coronavirus were diagnosed of which one person died.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists, who initially named the virus the “WH (Wuhan)-Human 1” virus had submitted a deep digging report on January 7, which was published by Nature magazine at the beginning of February.

The article describes samples taken from a 41 year old man who was working at the Wuhan Huanan Fresh Seafood market, showing a 91% similarity to a SARS-like coronavirus that is found in bats. An article by 28 Chinese virologists published on 24 January by The Lancet, details test results on the 41 positive cases.

China cracks down

After stern denials by China's state media and a letter, published on 19 February in The Lancet, signed by 27 scientists saying that "conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus," Beijing quickly cracked down.

An article by scientists Xiao Botao and Xiao Lei pointing at possible lab origins of the virus disappeared from the international academic data base Research Gate, but can be re-traced through the Wayback Machine, the Internet’s archive.

At the same time, authorities muzzled whistleblowing doctors, until one of them, Li Wenliang died, causing a massive outcry on social media leaving Beijing no other option than admitting the problem.

The China National Health Commission started to publish daily updates of newly infected cases, death rates and recoveries, numbers that peaked at the end of February, causing another about-face.

Covid-19 spreads

Meanwhile the virus started to spread aggressively into other countries. Initially in Iran then in Italy, then gradually over Europe, the US and Africa. And while the rest of the world caught fire, China brought the pandemic under control at home.

As an authoritarian communist dictatorship, China is extremely well positioned to mobilise large numbers of people. Since the Communist takeover in 1949, “mass mobilisation” has been a trusted tool of the Chinese Communist Party in organising millions of people to work for a common goal.

Before the 1978 capitalist revolution, Beijing's “mass mobilisation” resulted in disasters like the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

But the principles – the central leadership issues a decree, which is then transmitted to the grassroots and implemented by local police, party cells and thousands of neighborhood committees – have remained the same ever since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping started his capitalist reforms.

In today’s China, foreigners are often flabbergasted to see the short time it takes for the authorities to empty entire cities, as happens yearly during party celebrations.

Will the vaccination bring an end to Covid?

Other countries did not manage so well.

Fast forward to December. The main hotspots of Covid-19 are the US and Europe. Many countries in Europe went in renewed lockdown after cases boomed again after the summer confinement.

Meanwhile, competing labs experimented with vaccines, but it was US-based Pfizer that was the first to get approval to start mass producing its product.

The timeline for the vaccination campaign became clearer after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) gave in to pressure from Germany, bringing forward its assessment date for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to 21 December.

The UK launched its inoculation drive at the beginning of December with the US following suit.

Coordinated European campaign

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen encouraged all 27 EU states to roll out their vaccination campaigns on the same day.

But not everybody will queue up to get a shot. According to a November survey by the French public health agency (ARS), only 53 percent of French people want to be vaccinated, compared to 64 percent in July – among one of the lowest confidence ratings in the world.

Be that as it may, it seems that, in the words of French president Emmanuel Macron, there’s finally a ‘light at the end of the tunnel” of the Covid-19 Pandemic.