Today is the 1,065th day of the pandemic and its third anniversary. Since the start of the pandemic, the world has seen over 681.5 million cases and 6.81 million deaths. We’ve learnt so much over the past three years yet also so little.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. The novel coronavirus was sweeping the world and the world had lost its ability to contain it, if it ever had had such a capability.
Senior leaders in many countries reacted with denial, an air of incredulity, and of course fear.
Here’s how we got to that point.
While there were cases of Covid (which had not yet been named) in 2019, the World Health Organization on January 8, 2020 issued a statement discussing a “pneumonia of unknown cause” that its office in China had been notified of on December 31, 2019. As of January 3, 2020, a total of 44 patients with pneumonia of unknown etiology had been reported to the agency by the national authorities in China.
One day later, the WHO said that “Chinese authorities have made a preliminary determination of a novel (or new) coronavirus, identified in a hospitalized person with pneumonia in Wuhan,” perhaps the first time the phrase “novel coronavirus” was bandied about in the run-up to the global pandemic.
Public health officials understandably didn’t grasp the severity of the situation.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the acting head of WHO’s emerging diseases unit, told Reuters at the time, that “[F]rom the information that we have, it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission, potentially among families, but it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission.”
Politicians buried their heads in the sand.
Then President Donald Trump, when asked by a CNBC reporter on January 22 about any concern he might have of an impending pandemic, pooh-poohed it. “No. Not at all … We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.“
Wuhan, meanwhile, was shutting down and the WHO began to indicate the possibility of a global public health emergency.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said in a statement on January 23 that the novel coronavirus outbreak was not yet a public health emergency of international concern, but added this ominous warning: “Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.“
That only took a week.
On January 29, the head of the WHO’s Health emergency Programme issued a dire warning: “The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action and be ready for any cases that come from the epicenter or other epicenter that becomes established.”
One of the saddest moments was the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, on February 7 2020 from Covid. Li had sounded the alarm over the virus almost a month earlier and was forced to retract his statement by Chinese authorities. In an interview with the New York Times prior to his death, he said that he felt he “was being wronged” but “had to accept it.” “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency,” the brave doctor said.
The WHO named the virus COVID-19 on February 11, with its director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, telling the world “a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack.“
“If the world doesn’t want to wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one, I don’t think we will learn our lessons.”