Losing a year

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Workers in protective suits walk past the Hankou railway station on the eve of its resuming outbound traffic in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Just after midnight, the city’s 11 million residents will be permitted to leave without special authorization as long as a mandatory smartphone application shows they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the coronavirus. Photo: AP/UNB

You could say nowhere on the planet has been spared, and it would be accurate. At the fag end of the outgoing annum, its predominant motif extended to Antarctica, the icy, isolated continent literally at the end of the earth. On December 22, it reportedly recorded its first cases. Thirty-six people have been infected at a Chilean research base,  including 26 members of the Chilean army and 10 maintenance workers.

Spanish-language media first reported the outbreak at the General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research base, one of 13 maintained by the Chileans in Antarctica. The individuals who tested positive have since been evacuated to the city of Punta Arenas in Chile, where they are reported to be under isolation and in good condition.

The virus that first emerged a year ago in Wuhan, China, swept across the world in 2020, leaving havoc in its wake. More than any event in memory, the pandemic has been a global event. On every continent, households have felt its devastation — joblessness and lockdowns, infirmity and death. And an abiding, relentless fear.

But each nation has its own story of how it coped. How China used its authoritarian muscle to stamp out the coronavirus. How Brazil struggled with the pandemic even as its president scoffed at it. How Israel’s ultra-Orthodox flouted measures to stem the spread of the disease, intensifying the rift between them and their more-secular neighbours.

Spain witnessed the deaths of thousands of elders. Kenyans watched as schools closed and children went to work, some as prostitutes. It is the deadliest outbreak of an infectious disease in the relatively short history of Bangladesh as an independent state, with a death toll in excess of 7500 at the end of the year, yet the people also feel generally relieved at having been spared “the worst” of it.  India’s draconian lockdown brought the rate of infection down — but only temporarily, and at a horrific cost.

At year’s end, promising vaccines offered a glimmer of hope amid a cresting second wave of contagion.

“The winter will be difficult, four long difficult months,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she announced new restrictions on life in Germany. “But it will end.”

To end the year, in view of the very real threat still posed by the virus alongside its sheer impact on lives in 2020 that in many cases will last well beyond it, we assess, with the input of Associated Press journalists posted around the world,  how the countries with the most noteworthy outbreaks, including Bangladesh, have weathered the pandemic — and where those countries stand on the cusp of year two of the contagion.

CHINA

Workers have returned to factories, students are back in the classroom and once again long lines form outside popular hot pot restaurants. In major cities, wearing a surgical mask — though no longer required outside of subways and other crowded places — has become a habit.

In many ways, normal life has resumed in China, the country where COVID-19 first appeared one year ago.

“It feels like life has recovered,” said moviegoer Meng Xiangyu, when Beijing theatres re-opened with 30 percent of their seating after a six-month hiatus. “Everything feels fresh.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has withdrawn some of the most sweeping anti-disease controls ever imposed, but remains on guard against fresh outbreaks and cases from abroad. Health authorities report a dozen or so imported cases every day.

The challenge is jobs: The economy is growing again, but the recovery is uneven. Many big manufacturers are back to normal, but consumer spending remains tepid and smaller companies are contracting or closing.

By mid-December, the country had reported just six cases per 100,000 population. China does not include people who test positive but show no symptoms in its confirmed case counts.

Questions persist about how officials initially tried to cover up the outbreak and whether it was larger than the ruling Communist Party has acknowledged. The lockdown came too late to prevent the then-unnamed disease from ravaging the city of Wuhan and seeping out to the rest of China and overseas.

But since March, when COVID-19 was largely curbed at home, authorities have moved swiftly to stamp out any reappearance, locking down neighborhoods and conducting widespread testing.

“What was the most dangerous place is now the safest place of all,” said Chen Jin, who sells barbecue skewers at an outdoor night market in Wuhan. His business hasn’t recovered but he hopes to see more customers in 2021.

USA

Month after dismal month, Americans have been inundated by an ever-rising tide of devastating numbers. Hundreds of thousands of deaths. Tens of million unemployed.

By mid-December, five in every 100 Americans — more than 16 million — had been infected by COVID-19.

Those numbers testify to a historic tragedy. But they don’t fully capture the multitude of ways, large and small, that the virus has upended and reconfigured everyday life in the U.S.

For that, there are a host of other numbers. Some may be less familiar than others, yet all are just as telling in calculating the pandemic’s sweeping impact:

Miles that Americans did not drive because they were unemployed, working or studying from home and traveling less: 35.3 billion (through August)

School lunches and breakfasts that went unserved in March and April after schools were closed: 400 million

Number of people participating in meetings on Zoom each day last December: 10 million

Number of people participating daily in Zoom meetings by the end of March: 300 million

Employment rate of low-wage workers as the year nears its end, compared to January: down 20.3 percent

Employment rate of high-wage workers compared to January: up 0.2 percent

Drop in the number of passengers traveling on U.S. domestic flights this spring: 272.01 million, a decline of 76 percent (March to July, compared to the same period in 2019).

Dollars the international airline industry has lost this year: $118.5 billion

Passengers screened by Transportation Security Administration agents at U.S. airports on April 14 last year: 2.21 million

Passengers screened by the TSA on April 14 this year: 87,534

Number of TSA screening agents who have tested positive for COVID: 3,575

Number of TSA agents at New York’s John F. Kennedy International who have tested positive: 152

Number of people who went to a New York Broadway show during the first week of March: 253,453

Number of people who have been to a Broadway show since mid-March: 0

Number of jobs lost at New York City restaurants and bars between February and April: 233,751

Number of jobs regained at New York City restaurants and bars from April through September: 89,559

People who applied for a job at Amazon.com in a single week, after the online retailer announced a hiring fair to keep up with skyrocketing orders: 384,000

Payments to Americans by the Internal Revenue Service to help ease the pandemic’s economic fallout: 153.1 million checks and direct deposits through August, totaling $269.3 billion

Americans’ spending on restaurants and hotels, compared to January: down 36.6 percent

Americans’ spending on transportation, compared to January: down 50.9 percent

Americans’ spending on entertainment and recreation, compared to January: down 64.3 percent

Americans’ spending on groceries, compared to January: down 2.7 percent

Total sales of alcoholic beverages during the pandemic: $62.5 billion, up 21.8 percent

Online sales of alcohol in September compared to a year ago: up 256 percent

Sales of tequila for home consumption in September and October, compared to a year ago: up 56 percent

Champagne: up 71 percent

Ready-to-drink cocktails: up 131 percent

Production increase in bottles of Purell hand sanitizer this year: up 300 percent

Number of Purell single-pump “doses” contained in bottles shipped to U.S. hospitals this year: 54 billion

Dentists who closed their offices entirely, or to all but emergency patients, in April: 97.1 percent

Dentists whose offices have reopened, but with fewer patients than usual: 65.6 percent

Dentists who say they are seeing more patients who grind their teeth, usually an indicator of stress: 59.4 percent

Games played during Major League Baseball’s regular season last year: 2,430

Fans who attended those games: 68,494,752

Games played during MLB’s shortened regular season this year: 898

Fans who attended those games: 0

BRAZIL

The story of COVID-19 in Brazil is the story of a president who insists the pandemic is no big deal.

Jair Bolsonaro condemned the idea of coronavirus quarantine, saying shutdowns would wreck the economy and punish the poor. He scoffed at the “little flu,” then trumpeted the fatalistic claim that nothing could stop 70% of Brazilians from falling ill. And he refused to take responsibility, when many did.

Asked in April about Brazil’s death toll surpassing China’s, he responded: “So what? I lament it. What do you want me to do?”

Those words crystallized how many came to view Brazil’s pandemic response. For Márcio Antônio Silva, a resident of Rio de Janeiro who’d recently lost his 25-year-old son, they were a gut punch.

“I put him in the coffin, shut it and said, ‘My son, they will take care of you.’ And two days later I hear, ‘So what?’” Silva said. “It hurt so much. That’s maybe what hurts most today.”

Bolsonaro’s key actions were pragmatic and economic, albeit delayed and partially spurred by Congress. He enacted measures to prevent worse layoffs and doled out emergency coronavirus payments. Among the developing world’s most generous, they brought extreme poverty to its lowest level in decades and boosted his popularity.

Bolsonaro could have inspired people to hunker down, too, but instead he encouraged them to flout local restrictions — restrictions that he himself undermined by going out and drawing crowds. And he successfully lobbied for official soccer matches to resume, just as the pandemic peaked.

Brazil’s viral curve looks like few others: Rather than a crest, it shows a three-month plateau of roughly 1,000 daily deaths. By mid-December, the country had reported 85.3 cases per 100,000 population.

INDIA

For obvious reasons, the outbreak in India was always going to assume significance in Bangladesh. Yet after a slow and lumbering response early on, India has been caught between two calamities — a relentless pandemic that is ravaging the country and a hollowed-out economy that is without precedent.

Restaurants, cinemas and shopping districts are taking teetering steps on the country’s jagged path to recovery, but millions remain jobless. Markets are being thronged with crowds, but many shoppers are not wearing masks. The unemployed are slowly returning to cities to find work, even as hospitals still brim with COVID-19 patients.

That India, the world’s second-most populated country, would have one of world’s highest worst caseloads was always a probability. That’s why India’s initial response had to be big — perhaps even unmatched.

The government’s initial communication was confused and marred by misinformation. Worse, India’s ruling party leaders and its freewheeling news channels, which have long favored Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalistic policies, found a perfect villain: They blamed Muslims for spreading the virus, leading to an onslaught of online condemnation, physical violence and discrimination.

When Modi ordered the lockdown of the country’s entire population of more than 1.3 billion people on March 24 with just a four hours’ notice, nerves were frayed.

As the clock struck midnight, the 21-day lockdown came into force, eventually stretching to 68 days. Suddenly, a sprawling landscape, where countless millions of destitute citizens live in tightly packed urban areas, came to a grinding halt.

The number of detected cases peaked in September to nearly 100,000 a day and the country’s weakly funded healthcare system struggled to keep up.

New infections have fallen nationwide since then. But as air pollution levels rise and winter digs in after a festive season that spawned fears of a viral resurgence, the latest surge is cresting in New Delhi, where critical care wards are stretched to their limits.

By mid-December, India had reported 720 cases per 100,000 population.

ITALY

On the morning of Feb. 20, Dr. Annalisa Malara went to work at the public hospital in tiny Codogno, Italy, and broke protocol by ordering up a coronavirus test for a patient.

In so doing, she confirmed that Europe’s coronavirus outbreak was under way.

Malara’s intuition — to test a 38-year-old Italian marathoner who hadn’t traveled to China or been in contact with a known positive case — sounded the alarm to Italy and the rest of the world: The virus had not only arrived in the West but was circulating locally.

Italy would go on to become the epicenter of COVID-19 in Europe and a cautionary tale of what happens when a health care system in even one of the wealthiest parts of the world collapses under the weight of the pandemic sick and dead.

And when a second wave hit in September, even the lessons learned from the first weren’t enough to spare Italy’s disproportionately old population. Despite plans and protocols, monitoring systems and machinery that were put in place to hedge against the expected flu season onslaught, another 30,000 people died, hospitals once again were brought to the breaking point and Italy reclaimed the dishonor of leading Europe in the gruesome death count.

By mid-December, Italy had reported about 3,070 cases per 100,000 population.

GERMANY

For a time, Germany seemed to have solved the puzzle of how to quell COVID-19. Germans enjoyed a largely relaxed summer with many restrictions lifted, the dividend of a rapid response to the initial outbreak and a reliance on early and aggressive testing that won wide praise. That brought the number of daily COVID-19 cases down from a peak of more than 6,000 in late March to the mere few hundreds by the warmer months.

Government rules on social distancing, hygiene measures and mask wearing remained in place but, as Germans’ early vigilance slid into complacency, adherence began to slip and pictures of young people partying in tight groups and other violations prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel to issue a plea for people to fall back in line.

Infections continued to rise to new daily records nearly four times the March peak, then leveled off by the end of November — a sign the measures were working. Despite a recent rise, Germany is still the envy of many, with a third of the deaths of Britain and Italy, and just under a third of those of France — all of which have smaller populations.

JAPAN

The COVID-19 pandemic came by ship to Japan in February — a foreboding harbinger for a world that had not yet come to grips with the disaster to come.

The virus raced through a luxury cruise ship called the Diamond Princess after it had returned to its home port near Tokyo. A 14-day quarantine was imposed on the passengers, some of whom complained that they were being held in “ a floating prison.” Of 3,711 people aboard, 712 were infected and 12 died.

Though Japanese health officials were accused of botching the handling of the ship, the country has weathered the pandemic well — it has been spared the dangerous surges seen in the U.S. and Europe thus far. By mid-December, Japan had reported 138 cases per 100,000 population.

Still, daily cases are now topping 2,500, prompting renewed fears that things will get worse.

Experts say widespread use of masks has been the key to reducing the caseload in Japan. The country has certain other advantages — people naturally bow instead of exchanging handshakes or kisses, and kick off their shoes at home. Public health care is affordable.

Authorities have installed a strong system for infection tracing, and the public has heeded calls to avoid the “three Cs” — close distance, closed space and close conversation.

SOUTH AFRICA

At a popular cafe in Johannesburg’s Soweto area, owner Benedict Somi Vilakazi liked to tell foreign visitors how nearby Vilakazi Street was named after his grandfather, who defied racial discrimination to become one of South Africa’s first Black university lecturers.

But Vilakazi is no longer there to tell the tale — he died of COVID-19 in April at the age of 57. And seven months later, as the country’s tourism slowly resumed, family members gathered to honour his memory and, following tradition, distribute his clothes to loved ones.

Vilakazi was one of the early victims. COVID-19 arrived in South Africa in early March, when 10 people who had been visiting Northern Italy returned home. One of them — a 38-year-old man — brought the virus back with him.

The news set off alarms. Experts warned of a health catastrophe because so many of the country’s 60 million people live in overcrowded urban areas.

But the country had a secret weapon: Health professionals who are veterans of the country’s longstanding battles against HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant TB. South Africa’s leaders heeded their advice on how to deal with the virus and, though there have been ups and downs, the worst-case scenarios have not yet come to pass. And yet, till mid-December, over 25,000 were killed by the virus.

KENYA

The accepted wisdom was that young people had less to fear from COVID-19. But in Kenya, youth suffered from the pandemic in other ways.

Children have been forced into hard labor and prostitution. Schools are largely closed until 2021. Babies have been born in desperate conditions.

Until recently, Kenya had hardly been mentioned among the ranks of countries suffering in the pandemic, with infection numbers far below countries in Europe or Latin America or even elsewhere in Africa. Only now is the East African nation facing a surge that has drawn continental concern — four doctors recently died in a single day.

By mid-December, the country reported 178 cases per 100,000 population, but the number of deaths was still under 2000.

NEW ZEALAND

When the virus began its spread in March, circulating at events like conferences and weddings, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern moved quickly to shut the nation’s borders and impose a strict lockdown. Her motto: “Go hard and go early.” Ardern intended to eliminate the virus entirely — a bolder vision than mere containment. The lockdown turned out to be remarkably successful, and New Zealand went more than 100 days without any community spread. But then several small outbreaks occurred in Auckland.

So far, New Zealand has managed to stamp out each new outbreak through targeted lockdowns and contact tracing. That has meant New Zealanders have been able to enjoy freedoms that remain the envy of many other countries. They have returned to work, school and sports stadiums without any significant restrictions. The country of 5 million has reported about 2,000 cases and just 25 deaths.

BANGLADESH

As mentioned before, the general sense that prevails is that Bangladesh has been spared the worst of the coronavirus, even though the country has never seen anything like it before – a year- long flu outbreak that spread to every district, severely disrupted livelihoods, and took close to 7500 by mid-December. And in the middle of it all, some people, including hospital owners and doctors employed by the state, were reaping the opportunity to scam people.

It is also true that the authorities have not shown any interest in creating enough public awareness about the long-term impact of the virus. In the initial weeks of the pandemic, there was a daily press briefing where government officials revealed the death toll figures, which helped people stay alert. But it was stopped after only a few weeks and the government began easing restrictions to restart economic activity despite the continuing threat of the spread of the virus in June. That may have helped prolong its stay in the country.

Even the chairperson of the national technical advisory committee tackling the virus expressed concern. They are apparently consulted by the government on various matters.  But evidently their input is not always heeded.  On the other hand, the move to risk lives in order to preserve livelihoods may have helped keep the economy float, at a time of unprecedented downturns all around, winning it recognition as one of the best-performing during the pandemic. But at what cost?

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  • Covid-19
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  • Death on the high seas

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