The world on Thursday marked one year since the coronavirus threat was declared a pandemic, with vaccinations offering hope but much of humanity still enduring highly restricted lives and no clear path back to normality.
The enormity of the continuing global challenge was reflected in a stark warning by the International Council of Nurses that an exodus is looming of healthcare workers traumatised by the pandemic.
“They reach a point where they’ve given everything they can,” ICN chief executive Howard Catton told reporters.
While restrictions are easing in many parts of the world, hotspots persist such as Brazil, which on Wednesday reported a record 2,286 deaths in a single day as more contagious new variants fuel a surge there.
“It took a long time for the politicians to act… We are paying for it, the poor people,” said Adilson Menezes, 40, outside a hospital in Brazil’s biggest city Sao Paulo, where all non-essential businesses are closed to help fight the virus.
On the economic front, the US Congress passed one of its biggest stimulus efforts ever — a $1.9 trillion package that President Joe Biden said would give struggling American families a “fighting chance”.
Since first emerging in China at the end of 2019, the coronavirus has killed more than 2.6 million people and forced unprecedented curbs on movement that eviscerated economies.
The World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11 last year as infection numbers were beginning to explode across Asia and Europe.
About 4,600 deaths had been officially recorded around the world at the time.
But with the United States only just starting to feel the direct impacts of the pandemic, then-president Donald Trump played down the threat.
“The virus will not have a chance against us,” Trump told the nation.
Under his chaotic leadership, the United States would become the hardest-hit nation: the American death toll today stands at more than 528,000.
– ‘War footing’ –
The only defences to the contagious virus one year ago appeared to be face masks and stopping people from interacting.
Global aviation came to a standstill and governments imposed deeply unpopular restrictions, forcing billions of fearful people into some form of lockdown.
“We are on a war footing,” Corinne Krencker, the head of a hospital network in eastern France told AFP on March 11 last year, as patient and death numbers began to surge.
At the same time, governments and scientists launched the race to create vaccines — research and development that would take place at an unprecedented, breakneck pace.
Today, several shots are being rolled out, including those developed in the United States, Germany, China, Russia and India.
More than 300 million vaccine doses have been administered in 140 countries, according to an AFP count.
– Power, wealth divides –
The global vaccine rollout has also exposed power and wealth divides.
Rich nations have surged ahead with their mass vaccination programs, while billions in poorer nations are still waiting to receive shots.
Hope for a worldwide push has been boosted by the launch of deliveries under the WHO-backed Covax scheme, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.
The success of the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Johnson & Johnson shots is further cause for optimism as they are easier to transport and store than the ones from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which require storage at ultra-cold temperatures.
But AstraZeneca hit a snag on Thursday as Denmark temporarily suspended its use as a precaution after some patients developed blood clots since receiving the jab.
The European Union’s medical regulator was set to meet Thursday to discuss authorisation for the J&J vaccine, which has already been approved by Canada and the United States.
It would be the fourth vaccine to get the nod from the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency for use in the bloc after the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford jabs received green lights.
The EU has come under fire for its slow vaccine rollout — which it has blamed on supply and production issues.
On Thursday, the EU said it would extend until the end of June a scheme to monitor exports of vaccines from the bloc.
– ‘Light at end of tunnel’ –
The US vaccination effort has gained momentum in recent weeks, with Biden vowing to have enough doses in place within months for the entire American population.
His administration has driven through the massive economic stimulus package, which Biden is expected to sign into law on Friday.
Biden is set to deliver a prime-time address on Thursday in which he will offer an optimistic vision for his nation, and by extension the world.
“There is real reason for hope, folks, I promise you,” Biden said in a preview of his remarks.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel.”