The year began with the spread of the novel coronavirus in China’s Hubei province. In the months that followed, the virus swept around the world, disrupting life nearly everywhere, leaving sorrow in its wake.
As 2020 comes to a close, the pandemic has not abated, but mass vaccination campaigns now underway spell the early beginnings of an end now possible to foretell — more imminent for some countries than for others.
Major coronavirus news bookended the year. An onslaught of developments punctuated the intervening months, each event often eclipsing the one before it. Here is a look back at some of the key moments that held the world’s attention as the pandemic unfolded.
A new virus detected
At the beginning of January, as the busy Lunar New Year travel season approached, concerns begin to percolate about a pneumonia-like virus thought to be linked to an animal market in Wuhan. The unidentified illness has afflicted dozens, according to health officials, but it’s not yet clear how it spreads, or how contagious it is. Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines announce plans to scan travelers for symptoms and set up quarantine zones.
Wuhan struggles to contain the mysterious virus
Cases in Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, continue to climb. Officials scramble to contain and learn about the outbreak, which had taken the lives of at least nine people in all of China, by imposing quarantine measures and rules on travel from the city.
By the end of the month, Chinese authorities had imposed a strict lockdown affecting more than 30 million people. Holed-up Wuhan residents experience cabin fever, while the rest of the world looks on with trepidation, at early inklings of what the future might hold.
The virus has already traveled far.
A resident of Snohomish County, Wash., in his 30s returns from a trip to Hubei province on Jan. 15. After landing in Seattle he starts to feel ill. He is confirmed as the first known coronavirus case in the United States. Experts later determine that the virus was spreading undetected and uncontrolled early on.
Death of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower
Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor based in Wuhan who spoke out about the threat of the virus long before Chinese authorities were willing to acknowledge it, dies of the coronavirus on Feb. 6.
The 34-year-old ophthalmologist had been detained by Chinese officials on Jan. 1 for “rumor mongering.”
In death, he becomes a national icon, celebrated by Chinese social media users amid frustration over the government’s murky messaging.
Global health bodies advise against mask use
“If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected #coronavirus infection,” the World Health Organization tweets on March 1, as the virus rages in Asia and begins to spread through Europe.
In the United States, health officials give similar advice.
“One of the things [people] shouldn’t be doing, the general public, is going out and buying masks,” said U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. “It actually does not help, and it has not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public.”
The comments come as some countries, including the United States, face mask shortages for front-line workers. Health officials eventually backtrack and recommend fabric face coverings to block respiratory droplets in public. But the confusing advice sets the stage for masks to become a divisive issue in the United States.
Italy announces lockdown in the north
As cases and deaths soar in northern Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announces a lockdown affecting about 16 million people. The restrictions mark the toughest steps taken outside of China. Other countries in Europe, including Spain and France, follow with their own shutdowns.
In Italy, hospital beds fill with coronavirus patients. Doctors fall ill. Medical students matriculate early and health-care workers come out of retirement to fill staffing gaps. The world watches for lessons on what major outbreaks outside China might look like and how governments might respond.
For nearly two months, Italians are confined to their homes, raising questions about how far Western democracies can go in their restriction of civil liberties for public health purposes.
WHO declares the coronavirus a pandemic
With more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people dead, the WHO declares the coronavirus a pandemic.
“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” says WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Although the designation does not automatically trigger new funding or action, it serves as an indication that the virus runs rampant across continents.
First stay-at-home orders issued in U.S.
With the United States nearing 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, California becomes the first state to shut down, ordering its 40 million residents to stay home.
Some states follow suit, allowing residents to go outside only for essential activities such as grocery shopping, health care and exercise. Other states, citing economic concerns, avoid stay-at-home orders. They are to see some of the worst outbreaks.
Outbreaks at sea
With more than 300,000 cases confirmed worldwide, people are still packed into cruise ships. The Celebrity Eclipse and Coral Princess see devastating outbreaks almost two months after the Diamond Princess became one of the first vessels to experience one, off the coast of Japan.
South Africa imposes one of the continent’s strictest lockdowns
With much of Europe, the United States and Asia living under virus-related restrictions, South Africa imposes a national lockdown after becoming the first African country to confirm more than 1,000 cases of the virus.
President Cyril Ramaphosa sends army personnel across the country of 57 million people to enforce the measure, which bans all movement apart from grocery shopping, walking alone, collecting welfare grants and seeking health care. The shutdown would come to span months, becoming one of Africa’s strictest.
While the virus’s spread sparks concerns on a continent with health infrastructures more fragile than China’s and Europe’s, which buckled under pressure, life continues to look much like normal in many parts of the continent.
Boris Johnson tests positive
Appearing wan and disheveled, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweets a video confirming that he has tested positive for the virus. He recovers after becoming seriously ill, spending weeks out of commission and two days in intensive care.
His illness comes as Britain faces criticism for its handling of the pandemic. The country is plagued by testing shortages, and Johnson had taken a different approach to virus restrictions than some of his European neighbors, who were quick to impose harsh restrictions and shutdowns.
Wuhan begins to emerge from lockdown
In Wuhan, residents are just coming out of lockdown, with eyes unaccustomed to direct sunlight and legs unaccustomed to strolling. For 10 weeks, people had been confined largely to their apartments.
“I’ve been indoors for 70 days,” one woman who ventures to a shopping mall tells local television.
Life does not return to normal right away, but by summer, Wuhan is holding parties in packed water parks as the United States registers more than 40,000 new confirmed cases per day.
U.S. records 100,000 deaths
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tests positive
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, 65, said he tested positive for the coronavirus. Brazil trails only the United States in confirmed cases.
The right-wing populist leader has mounted a controversial response to the pandemic, even compared to that of the United States, where denialism and movements against control measures find support in the White House.
Bolsonaro has called the virus a “little flu” and refuses to implement restrictions, appearing at packed rallies without a mask and attending floating barbecue parties as the virus ravaged his country.
A trickle of Hajj pilgrims, where millions once worshiped
In a normal year, the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina draws more than 2 million worshipers. This year, the pilgrimage is a sliver of the normal size, with the kingdom allowing only up to 1,000 Saudi residents to partake.
The Saudi government enforces health restrictions that make the pilgrimage all the more unusual: holy water is bottled instead of drawn from a communal well, stones to be symbolically hurled at the devil come pre-sanitized and worshipers wear masks as they walk around the Kaaba.
Across the world, the virus has forced the devout to adapt their practices — from virtual prayer services to sanitizing icons that are traditionally kissed.
Russia becomes the first country to register a vaccine
Russia becomes the first country to claim victory in the global vaccine race with Sputnik V, its approved but untested coronavirus vaccine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin says has been administered to his own daughter.
Putin says the country plans to roll out mass vaccinations in early fall. International health experts warn of a lack of transparent research. Less than two weeks later, China begins administering its own experimental vaccine for public use.
Neither drug has been tested to the standards of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines eventually cleared in the West.
1 million deaths confirmed worldwide
Trump says he has tested positive
In a late-night tweet, President Trump confirms reports that he has tested positive for the virus. Trump has routinely played down the virus’s threat, holding indoor rallies, refusing to wear a mask in public and touting unproven treatments for the illness. He is a patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before hitting the campaign trail about two weeks later.
The president’s diagnosis precedes a wider outbreak in the White House and in Washington conservative circles that is traced back to a Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony marking the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.
Europe’s second wave of lockdowns
After a summer of tourism and relatively low case numbers, countries in Europe begin to see cold-weather spikes in infections. Belgium, France, Germany and Italy are among those to see record caseloads as hospitals begin to fill up.
Hesitant to reimpose the economically punishing lockdowns of March, leaders implement piecemeal restrictions targeting hotspots. But as infections continue to soar, many countries return to lockdowns.
Vaccines on the horizon
In the bleakness of winter, a glimmer on the horizon: Pharmaceutical companies around the world have been working under unprecedented pressure, with unprecedented access to resources, to produce a vaccine candidate.
Health officials hail the news. “The results are really quite good, I mean extraordinary,” says Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Days later, Moderna releases similarly promising trial results.
Britain becomes first Western country to approve vaccine
Britain announces it has approved for use the Pfizer vaccine, becoming the first country in the world to do so.
“We’ve been waiting and hoping for the day when the searchlights of science would pick out our invisible enemy and give us the power to stop that enemy from making us Ill. And now, the scientists have done it,” Johnson says.
Britain defends its swift approval processes even as the move draws some criticism from the United States and the European Union, who say their regulators are following more thorough processes.
U.S. sees spike in cases, but no major lockdowns
As case numbers and hospitalizations spike, residents in parts of Southern California and the Bay Area prepare for a second stay-at-home order that bars dining out and gathering with people outside one’s household.
Although the pandemic is worse in the United States than it ever has been, other states and cities decline to do the same. Some implement rules on indoor dining or gatherings, but nothing matching the restrictions of the spring.
First public vaccine in the West administered
Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old British grandmother and retiree, makes history by becoming the first person to receive the Pfizer vaccine outside clinical trials. She’s followed by William Shakespeare, 81. The moment is seen as the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
Less than a week later at a hospital in Queens, front-line nurse Sandra Lindsay is one of the first people in the United States to receive the vaccine.
But across the globe, other countries will be waiting, some for years, for their own vaccine supply. And that means the virus is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.