News·10 min read

COVID-19: A Once-in-a-Century Pandemic

Medical staff push a patient on a gurney to a waiting medical helicopter at the Emile Muller hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, to be evacuated on another hospital on March 17, 2020.
Getty Images
December 28, 2020

A Once-in-a-Century Pandemic

The Story

We all had plans for 2020. And then COVID-19 happened.

I'm still trying to find my footing.

You're not alone. Nearly a year ago, life as we knew it began to change. From work to school to home, almost every aspect of daily life took a hit. But as the world continues to navigate these unprecedented times, it's also important to reflect on how we got here. Because trust us, you'll want to be able to tell your grandkids wtf happened.

Ok. Remind me.

Around this time last year, we started hearing about a pneumonia-like illness that began infecting people in Wuhan, China. Many early cases were linked to a wet market there. And Chinese authorities soon started reporting dozens of cases of people experiencing a fever, cough, and trouble breathing. In early January, Chinese researchers identified the cause of the outbreak: a new coronavirus (read: a type of virus causing respiratory illness). And shortly after, China reported the first known death from the virus – which experts say likely originated in bats and passed through another animal before it jumped to humans. Less than a month into 2020, the US confirmed its first known case in Washington state.

Go on.

Here's how things quickly spiraled...and what you didn't have penciled into your 2020 planner:

January...The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency as hundreds died and thousands became infected. In the US, the White House Coronavirus Task Force (hi, Dr. Anthony Fauci) was set up to help lead the gov's response to the coronavirus. President Trump restricted travel from China, and had said the situation was "totally under control." (Sidenote: It was not.)

February...The CDC started shipping tests but they were faulty. The WHO said 'no time to be creative' and named the coronavirus disease COVID-19. The US reported its first death – though we later learned that at least two coronavirus-related deaths happened weeks earlier.

March…The WHO declared a global pandemic. Wall Street took a dive. President Trump issued a travel ban from Europe, declared a national emergency, and limited travel between Canada and Mexico. Many Americans started WFH as offices closed down to curb the virus's spread. Many others, America's essential workers, didn't have that option. NYC public schools – the country's largest public school district – went remote. And California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order.

March, continued…The US became one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic with NYC as the epicenter with over 12,000 hospitalizations reported there at its peak in April. By the end of March, dozens of states had issued stay-at-home orders. And as people stayed home and supply chains became disrupted, businesses across many industries issued mass layoffs. Congress worked on a historic $2.2 trillion stimulus package (the CARES Act) to help the country get by, and the president signed, sealed, and delivered it.


Americans were urged to social distance, wash their hands, and wear face masks to "flatten the curve." But the federal gov sent mixed messages about how to tackle the virus – often conflicting with state officials, scientists, and health experts. Lawmakers accused the Trump admin of interfering with the CDC and the FDA's coronavirus response. And Trump took steps to withdraw from the WHO, claiming that the org was too cozy with China. Amid all the finger pointing, infections soared – disproportionately affecting people of color. By fall, over 7 million people in the US had been infected and more than 200,000 had died from the coronavirus. But then, things took another turn.

Go on.

In October, Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19. It was the most serious known health scare to any sitting US president in decades and sent a wave of uncertainty across the world – raising questions about the 2020 election and presidency. Trump – who experienced a fever, fatigue, and difficulty breathing – was flown to a nearby US military hospital, and was given supplemental oxygen, steroids, and an experimental antibody cocktail. Within days of the president's diagnosis, several people linked to a White House event (staffers, Republican senators, and journalists) and debate organizers also tested positive. The president returned to the White House after a few days and said he was feeling better than "20 years ago"– although his admin faced questions for not being transparent about his health. Before and after he got sick, Trump faced criticism for not taking the virus seriously and not doing enough to protect Americans.

What a trip down memory lane.

Indeed. And the virus is still impacting many areas of American life, including:

Health care…where no amount of 'thanks' will ever be enough to show people's appreciation to health care workers. The country's frontline workers treated coronavirus patients when there was a global shortage of PPE – personal protective equipment (think: N95 masks and gowns), faulty tests, and overwhelmed hospitals. At least 7,000 health care workers worldwide have reportedly lost their lives from the virus. Some hospitals are still facing equipment shortages. And financial uncertainty in part from canceling all non-urgent procedures – a vital source of revenue – during the pandemic's early days.

The economy…where at the height of the pandemic, the unemployment rate reached nearly 15% – the highest level since the Great Depression – as businesses closed, leaving millions of people without jobs. The high number of claims led to a backlog at state unemployment offices – with many Americans waiting several months to receive benefits. The US entered recession territory, ending nearly 11 years of economic expansion. Women were hit especially hard. Supply chains were disrupted and entire industries devastated – from restaurants to airlines to hotels. The gov's one-time stimulus checks and $600 weekly federal unemployment bonus came and went. And yesterday – after weeks of negotiations on the Hill – Trump signed a $900 billion coronavirus relief package including $300 in additional weekly unemployment benefits and another round of direct payments to most Americans. But the delay has likely cost millions of Americans to lose a week of jobless benefits. And the one-time payments could now be delayed. Even with the stimulus package, millions are trying to make ends meet.

Schools…where a tug of war broke out between parents, teachers, staff, and the gov. Some schools pushed for online learning to prevent the virus's spread. Parents struggled to balance working and teaching from home. The Trump admin pressured schools to open or risk losing funding. And children were stuck in the middle. On the higher education front, some colleges and universities said 'campus is open.' But it didn't take long for some in-person learning to transition back to Zoom, as schools shut down again and college towns became hotspots.

So, where do we stand?

The US leads in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths: Over 19 million recorded infections and over 333,000 deaths. And December has been the country's deadliest month so far. The arrival of winter had health experts worrying about a "twindemic" – the seasonal flu and the coronavirus combined – that would overwhelm hospitals, stress vital resources, and push another round of lockdowns. And we did see a surge of coronavirus cases. In nearly every state, hospitalizations went up (especially in rural areas), and many have had to cancel their holiday plans to keep their family safe. Meanwhile, the incoming Biden admin's working on a national strategy – targeting things like increased testing and contact tracing – to fight the pandemic. For his first 100 days in office, President-elect Joe Biden says he'll ask all Americans to wear a mask.


COVID-19 has impacted nearly every single person on the planet in one way or another. It has challenged families and entire industries, and created a 'new' normal. But despite the mistakes, division, and devastating loss, there have also been moments of resilience, unity, and hope. Tell that to your grandkids.

Around the World

COVID-19 cases have been reported on every continent (even Antarctica) – infecting more than 80 million people and killing over 1.7 million. Here's how governments outside the US have responded…

Where the word was 'containment'…The WHO gave China a gold star for its tough response to the virus, which included placing Wuhan under a 76-day lockdown. But the US has pointed the finger at Beijing and the WHO, accusing them of mishandling the early days of the virus's spread. Other countries credited for containing the first wave of the virus: New ZealandAustralia, and Singapore. Health experts say they did the right things: early lockdowns, widespread testing, and contact tracing. And female leaders (hi, Jacinda Ardern, Sanna Marin, and Tsai Ing-wen) have been particularly successful at curbing the virus's spread. But even countries with success stories haven't been able to avoid additional waves.

Where outbreaks spiraled out of control…Italy became the first Western country to be slammed by the coronavirus. Over a quarter of its population was under lockdown earlier this year. And the Lombardy region became one of the hardest hit areas. Some viewed the outbreak in Italy as a lesson for the world. And it wasn't spared from the second wave. In Brazil, the president referred to COVID-19 as a "little flu" and urged businesses to reopen. Now, it's in third place for the highest number of cases in the world.

Where the worst predictions haven't come true...Africa. The continent has had over 2.5 million confirmed cases. It's unclear if the relatively low numbers were due to early lockdowns, the continent's young population, or a lack of widespread testing. But now, several countries are reporting more infections. In South Africa, there's evidence of a new variant of the virus – similar to the one in the UK – that's leading to a surge of infections. And in Nigeria, another new strain has reportedly emerged.

Where there's déjà vu…countries throughout Europe. France, Germany, and the UK had to impose new lockdowns to contain a growing number of infections that began in the fall. And earlier this month, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the toughest restrictions since March amid a new strain of the coronavirus there. It prompted countries around the world to shut their doors on the UK. Scientists say mutations aren't unexpected and that current vaccines should still be effective. And so far, there's no sign that this strain is deadlier.

Taking a Shot

The pandemic set off a vaccine race (think: over 160 potential ones worldwide). China and Russia rolled out their own shots – which had experts questioning their efficacy and safety. In the US, Operation Warp Speed has been working to get Americans access to a vaccine ASAP. And while several companies began their trial phases with much hope, the ones that came out on top did so with mRNA vaccines. These new shots don't contain the virus (unlike traditional vaccines). And have been described like an email that tells your immune system "what the virus looks like, instructions to kill it, and then – like a Snapchat message – it disappears." Here are the developers who've been successful so far:

Pfizer: The US pharmaceutical giant and Germany's BioNTech said 'let's collab.' And produced a 95% effective vaccine. Britain gave Pfizer the stamp of approval and rolled it out – making it the first Western country to give a vaccine the green light. Then came Bahrain and Canada. And before long, the US jumped onboard. Pfizer has said it expects to provide up to 50 million doses worldwide this year and over 1 billion in 2021.

Moderna: Earlier this month, the FDA approved the company's coronavirus vaccine (which looks to be 94% effective) for emergency use among people 18 and older. And the first batch of about 6 million doses have rolled out to more than 3,000 locations across the country. Moderna has said it's on track to distribute 20 million doses by the end of the month or early January (enough for 10 million people). And up to 1 billion doses next year.

Right now, there are also several other promising vaccines in the works, including from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. And despite Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccine distribution, it could still be months before most Americans can get their shots as higher-risk groups get immunized first. Health experts are warning that a vaccine isn't the end-all and be-all solution to combating the virus. So, hang on to your masks.

Meanwhile, as wealthier countries roll out their vaccines, poorer nations are left waiting. One analysis found that richer nations have claimed enough doses to immunize their populations by the end of 2021. But developing countries could have to wait until 2024 to do the same. The WHO set up the COVAX initiative earlier this year to discourage hoarding and distribute vaccines to high-risk populations. But the effort's far behind on funding and it hasn't approved or secured a vaccine to distribute.

The Humanity

Even when things were already pretty ugly, they sometimes got...uglier. Amid the pandemic, Chinese citizens and people of Asian descent were victims of racist incidents, including verbal and physical attacks over baseless assumptions around ties to the origins of the virus. Beyond the xenophobia, people also created and spread conspiracy theories about the virus's spread. And some challenged the use of a mask.

But. And there's a big but. It wasn't all doom and gloom all the time. The pandemic brought families, friends, and strangers closer together (figuratively). Here are some of our favorite highlights:

Neighbors checked in on neighbors. People shopped local. Evening applause broke out for health care workers. Self-care became a priority, not a concept. Some said 'challenge accepted' on TikTok. Others became bakersQuarantinis took over happy hour. And there were puzzles. Binge-watching reached a new level (thanks, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+, Quibi, Peacock, get where we're going here). And the world was forced to slow down and take a breather. But with a mask on.

COVID-19 has disrupted nearly everything about 2020. And if we've learned anything from history, it's that sometimes when you disrupt things, it's hard to go back. So keep an eye out for the trends that might be here to stay: like more flexibility around working remotely, more online sales and content consumption, and a recognition that everything is just a little more germy than we initially realized. And while we don't know what the future holds, take a moment to press pause and reflect on all we've been through together (and apart).

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