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The Covid memorial wall covered in hearts

History of the COVID-19 pandemic

In early December 2019, a few people in the Chinese city of Wuhan began to experience pneumonia-like symptoms that didn’t respond well to normal treatments. This was the start of a pandemic that would change history

The National Covid Memorial Wall, Westminister | Image:

Heralding in a new year is often a time of hope, joy and renewal. As people raised glasses, enjoyed fireworks and spent time with friends and family on 31 December 2019, little did they know what lay ahead in the coming months.

At the stroke of midnight, a new infectious disease that would become known as COVID-19 was already spreading like wildfire. The world was about to descend into one of the deadliest pandemics in history, one that would claim the lives of over 7 million people across the globe.

Patient Zero

In early December 2019, a few people in the Chinese city of Wuhan began to experience pneumonia-like symptoms that didn’t respond well to normal treatments.

By the end of the year, the China office of the World Health Organization (WHO) had been notified and had traced the cases back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The market was closed on New Year’s Day and just 10 days later the first known Chinese death caused by the new virus was confirmed.

The WHO began testing samples of the new disease and soon identified it as a novel Coronavirus caused by the SARS CoV-2 virus. Its official name was announced as COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019).

To this day, the origins of the new virus remain a contentious subject. The two most touted theories suggest the virus either jumped from animals to humans at the Huanan Seafood Market or that it escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Either way, by mid-January the virus had already crossed borders and was identified in Thailand. The spread had begun.

COVID-19 reaches the UK

On 31 January, the first cases of COVID-19 in the UK were documented in York. However, the first UK death had already occurred the day before but wasn’t officially announced until several months later.

As infections began to spread across the country, Boris Johnson’s Tory government announced the first national lockdown would begin on 23 March. By that time, COVID-19 had spread to 114 countries and already caused over 4,000 deaths, leading the WHO to officially declare the virus a pandemic.

Lockdown begins

With borders closed, flights grounded, and ships docked, the world began to shut down. In the UK, a stay-at-home order was legally enforced as all schools, hospitality venues and non-essential shops closed. Only key workers were granted freedom of movement, otherwise people adjusted to life at home.

Zoom meetings, home-schooling and social distancing became the norm as the nation experienced its first lockdown.

Living with COVID-19

To cope with the restrictive nature of their new lives, people turned to social media to seek human interaction. Viral trends spread almost as quickly as the virus with images of homemade banana bread doing the rounds, alongside live online exercise classes with Joe Wicks. Netflix’s Tiger King became the new global obsession whilst online gaming witnessed a surge in players as friends looked to stay connected virtually.

As the weeks rolled by, people began to realise the pandemic wouldn’t be ending any time soon. In the summer of 2020, the Clap For Our Carers movement saw people up and down the country take to their doorsteps, once a week, to show their appreciation for the nation's key workers.

With many businesses closed millions of people found themselves out of work. In response, the UK government introduced a furlough scheme to help temporarily cover people's salaries.

The lockdown ended in June 2020, however, a further two national lockdowns would come into force over the coming months.

In between lockdowns, the government hammered home messages to help stop the spread of the disease. Campaigns such as ‘Hands. Face. Space’ went alongside restrictive laws such as the rule of six, the 2m rule and compulsory face masks.

Vaccine rollout

As part of the country’s response to COVID-19, seven new NHS Nightingale hospitals were set up across the UK and prepped with thousands of beds. The hospitals were to house COVID-19 patients should the NHS hospitals become overwhelmed.

The UK was at the forefront of the global effort to create a COVID-19 vaccine. The process to develop, approve and roll out a vaccine usually takes a decade. However, a monumental global effort saw several COVID-19 vaccines produced in just eight months. The world soon became familiar with vaccine names such as Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca.

In December 2020, the biggest vaccine campaign in NHS history began as the elderly and most vulnerable became the first in the UK to receive the jab. By the end of the pandemic, nearly 9 out of 10 people in the UK over the age of 12 had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Death toll and legacy

In May 2023, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was no longer a global health emergency. Whilst the pandemic was over and the vaccines had successfully reduced the deadliness of the disease, COVID-19 was still very much a part of life, with the threat of new variants requiring constant observation.

In total, nearly 234,000 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in the UK during the pandemic. Statistical analysis showed great disparities in age, sex and ethnicity of those most impacted.

Deaths were highest among older people with 92.3% being in those aged 60 or over and 58.3% being aged 80 or over. Men had the highest mortality rate whilst children and those under 20 had the lowest. The virus also caused a higher number of deaths among Black and Asian communities, proportionate to the overall population in the UK.

The global landscape shifted significantly in the wake of the pandemic. Something once considered confined to the history books was now an ever-present threat. Alongside a legacy of suffering, economic damage and social upheaval, COVID-19 exposed the world’s lack of preparation for pandemics.

With scientists believing climate change will likely increase the risk of large-scale outbreaks, the lessons learned from COVID-19 will prove vital in the future

Covid Day of Reflection 2024

To remember all the lives that were lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and show support to the bereaved, an annual day of reflection was initiated on the anniversary of the first lockdown on March 23 2021. Now in its fourth year, a minute's silence will take place on Sunday 3 March at 12pm, following the UK Commission's report on Covid Commemoration which recommended it should take place on the first Sunday in March.