On March 11, 2020, more than two months after China first identified a virulent and deadly new coronavirus, and with 114 countries already reporting multiple cases of infection, the World Health Organization finally declared the world to be in the grip of a pandemic on a scale not seen for over a century.
Although there are thought to be hundreds of coronaviruses present in animal populations, until then only six had developed the ability to jump across to humans, causing conditions ranging from the common cold to more serious respiratory diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
But the newcomer was far deadlier and harder to contain than any of its predecessors. In just five months it has travelled to almost every country in the world, infecting more than six million people, claiming over 375,000 lives and devastating the global economy.
In his new year's message on Jan. 2, 2020, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) urged the world to “take a moment to thank all the brave health workers.” Within a few weeks, the words of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus would take on an unprecedentedly urgent meaning.
It soon became clear that the modern world was about to be engulfed in a fight for its life with a microscopic organism capable of a virulence not seen since the flu pandemic of 1918-19.
It also swiftly became apparent that for all the advances in medicine and technology of the recent past, we remain at the mercy of wayward nature, thanks largely to the inability of world governments to act as one and efficiently intervene.
On Jan. 26, I wrote an opinion piece syndicated throughout the region, urging Gulf and other states to at least screen incoming passengers from China. The only correct reaction at that stage to what the world now knows was a new coronavirus was “prudent over-reaction.” On Feb. 17, I hardened the message: The single most effective defense our interconnected world had against the new virus was to ground every aircraft.
Although I am a journalist specializing in medical issues, writing investigative articles regularly for the British Medical Journal and other publications, I was not blessed with any special insight. The tragedy of what has unfolded over the past five months is that all the steps we should and could have taken were simply common sense.
Yet at first, few outside the central Chinese city of Wuhan seemed overly alarmed by the cluster of more than 40 mysterious pneumonia-like cases that were reported by Beijing to the WHO’s China Country Office on the last day of 2019.
One week after Ghebreyesus’ speech, which made no mention of anything untoward brewing in China, Beijing announced that it had identified the cause of the outbreak — a novel form of coronavirus, a newly discovered member of a family of viruses common in animals and humans.
It seemed to have originated in the animal kingdom, possibly jumping from bats to the pangolin, a scaly animal protected by international and local law but which, with its scales prized in Chinese folk medicine, is traded illegally.
Whether or not the link between the virus and the pangolin is firmly established, hopefully the memory of the great pandemic of 2020 will serve as a warning that we abuse our relationship with nature at our collective peril.
It is now clear that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a considerable length of time, and the actions that we take must be actions that we can live with for a prolonged period.
An expert quoted on the front page of Arab News, March 12, 2020
Several common and perpetually circulating human coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold. Over the past two decades, however, two new ones surfaced that hinted at the family’s capacity to cause serious harm: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which emerged in 2003, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), first seen in 2012.
Together, they accounted for just over 10,000 cases and about 1,630 deaths, but the new member of the family had far deadlier ambitions.
On Jan. 11, 2020, China reported its first death, a 61-year-old man who had been a customer at the market where the virus is thought to have jumped from an animal to a human for the first time.
Over the coming days and even weeks, the virus could have been contained, but China was slow to introduce effective lockdown procedures. Aircraft continued to fly, and the rest of the world looked on with an indifference that would soon prove deadly to hundreds of thousands of people and catastrophic for economies worldwide.
Even as the virus spread rapidly within China, the WHO played down the threat. In fact, on Feb. 4 Ghebreyesus even urged countries not to ban flights from Wuhan, for fear of “increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.”
Few public health pronouncements have proved to be so ill-judged.
On Feb. 11, the WHO gave the virus its official name: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease it caused was COVID-19. But it was on March 11 that the WHO finally declared the outbreak to be a pandemic — a state of affairs already blindingly obvious to the 114 countries that by then were already in its grip.
Governments worldwide reacted with little cohesion, often shunning the already tardy WHO advice until far too late. Some leaders, most notably US President Donald Trump, produced a series of perverse and even dangerous messages, hampering the efforts of their own public health services.
Worse, many governments seemed reluctant to accept the short-term preventive economic disruption which, in the absence of any cure or vaccination for COVID-19, was the bitter medicine that clearly had to be swallowed.
In the parlance of epidemiology, the aircraft served as the fatally efficient vector for the virus, in the same way that the mosquito is the instrument that spreads malaria. Eventually, and in an uncoordinated, haphazard fashion, flights were grounded. But the measure came too late to prevent the virus from traveling the globe and, ultimately, caused far more global economic disruption than if air travel had been halted earlier on.
Even then, in many countries there was a continuing reluctance to act swiftly and shutter shops, offices, restaurants and transport systems, and confine people to their homes. Lacking firm guidance, many people continued to mingle — at work, in trains, in restaurants, in parks and on beaches.
As the virus spread around the globe, it exposed a lack of long-term health planning and preparedness. Many countries found themselves short of bed space, personal protective equipment for frontline medical staff and all-important mechanical ventilators.
The highest price has been paid by those countries that were slowest to act. America, one of the world’s wealthiest and most scientifically advanced nations, has suffered the highest number of cases and deaths. As of June 2, the virus has infected 1.8 million Americans and killed over 105,000, the highest death toll in the world and a loss equal to the total number of US service personnel killed in America’s wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
Around the world, health systems faced with life-or-death decisions found themselves forced to adopt triage systems more typically seen on battlefields, allocating limited resources to those most likely to survive.
Horror stories of loss and sacrifice became commonplace, in almost every country in the world. On the frontlines, many of the courageous health workers who had been honored in Ghebreyesus’ new year's speech paid for their dedication with their lives.
By the beginning of April, just three months after the first victims had been identified in Wuhan, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 had passed 1 million, more than 50,000 people had died, and much of the world was living in isolation and fear.
But the virus was just getting started. As of June 2, just two months later, there have been 6.3 million confirmed global cases, and more than 375,000 deaths. According to research estimates of the number of people who carry the disease without symptoms, the true figure for the number of infections could be at least 56 million.
It remains to be seen how this plague will play out. The race is on to produce vaccines and treatments, but neither appears to be imminent. And, if the problem in the first months of 2020 was that of doors being slammed shut too late, in the view of many concerned epidemiologists, it is now those same doors being flung open again too soon in the rush to end lockdowns that poses a risk of a second wave of infections.
Such has been the disruption caused to everyday life around the planet — as much by the fractured nature of the world’s response as by the virus itself — that we must learn the harsh lessons the coronavirus has taught us about the necessity of acting in concert in the face of a global threat. However, President Trump’s politically motivated announcement last week that the US was pulling out of the World Health Organization and halting its funding does not bode well.
As bad as SARS-CoV-2 has been, epidemiologists fear it may not be the Big One. We must learn to work together better as a human race if we are to successfully confront not only the next, inevitable pandemic, but also the ultimately far greater existential threat posed by climate change which, largely forgotten during the coronavirus crisis, continues to hang over all our heads.
- Jonathan Gornall, a writer for Arab News, specializes in medical issues and writes investigative articles for the British Medical Journal.