World marks 2nd anniversary of WHO’s designation of COVID as pandemic

As the world on Friday marks the second anniversary of the designation of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), the lives of people across the globe have been significantly altered after countries rushed to adapt to the “new normal” through measures to stem the spread of the virus and reduce casualties. 

Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province in central China, was the ground zero of the pandemic with officials reporting 27 cases of viral pneumonia in December 2019. Although the initial reports did not attract much international attention, things would change drastically in the ensuing weeks as the virus quickly spread to several continents in a short span of time.

By the end of January 2020, when the WHO declared the situation a “public health emergency,” countries including the US, India, Japan, and Australia, as well as several European states such as France, the UK, and Germany had already reported their first cases, while China had announced more than 10,000 infections and hundreds of fatalities.

In an effort to curb the outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a lockdown in Wuhan on Jan. 23, 2020, suspending transportation means such as buses, subways, ferries, and flights and telling people to stay home.

The Chinese response also prompted other countries to take initiatives and arrange the evacuation of their citizens from virus-hit Wuhan, including the UK, US, Australia, Canada, EU countries, Japan, India, and Turkiye.

A Turkish A400M military transport plane departed for Wuhan on Jan. 31, 2020 with a medical team onboard and arrived there early in the morning. An Anadolu Agency reporter recalled the city’s empty streets with almost no vehicles or people visible and Wuhan Tianhe International Airport nearly deserted except for the Turkish plane that was landing.

After hours of waiting, Turkish citizens as well as nationals of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Albania were allowed by Chinese officials to enter the plane as none of them were showing symptoms of the virus. They boarded one by one after being screened by the medical staff for COVID-19 and the plane departed for the Turkish capital Ankara.

The evacuees looked truly relieved while flying back to their country as the stressful waiting at the airport and tensions caused by the then-unknown outbreak took a toll on almost all of them. But their concerns vanished on landing in Ankara, where they and the evacuation crew were put under quarantine for 14 days in line with the designated incubation period of the virus.

That none of the evacuees tested positive for COVID-19 was a source of relief for Turkish authorities and they were discharged 10 days into the quarantine. On March 11, however, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic as Turkiye confirmed its first case and death four days later.

As the virus quickly spread across European countries, Turkiye closed its borders to countries, including Germany, Spain, France, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands as of mid-March. Flights had already been canceled with Italy, South Korea, and Iraq on Feb. 29.

By late March, Europe was viewed as the new “epicenter” of the pandemic as Italy, Spain, Germany, and France had reported case counts of 100,000, 85,000, 62,000, and 44,000, respectively, according to data from US-based Johns Hopkins University.

Depending on the pace of the spread of the virus, several other countries were addressed as COVID-19 epicenters during the outbreak, including the US, Brazil, India, and Russia, according to international media reports.

Although the situation looked grim in late December 2020 as the global death toll topped 1 million, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said there was a “light at the end of the tunnel,” pointing to the emerging vaccine studies, while earlier in the same month, the WHO issued its first emergency use for the validation of a COVID-19 vaccine — the Pfizer/BioNTech.

Today, there are 35 different vaccines for use against COVID-19, according to COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, and the introduction of vaccines for public use offered a very efficient way to combat the pandemic which gradually led to countries easing COVID-19 restrictions such as lifting mandatory mask requirements outdoors.

With high vaccination rates and the emergence of the omicron variant as a dominant strain with mild symptoms, most European countries have recently begun easing COVID-19 restrictions.

Denmark has become the first European country to lift all restrictions, and other countries such as the UK, Italy, and Spain relaxed their measures. Turkiye has also lifted the mandatory use of masks outdoors and several states in the US have opted to roll back their COVID-19 restrictions as well.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 453.5 million cases have been reported worldwide and the global death toll has exceeded 6 million, while the number of vaccines administered surpassed 10.6 billion, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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