This is the day the world changed: Three years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic began

On this date three years ago, a man walked into Hubei Provincial Hospital in Wuhan, China, reporting flu-like symptoms. Within two weeks, there were 27 cases showing similar symptoms. Then, just four days before the end of the year, the head of the hospital’s respiratory department, Dr. Zhang Jixian, made a report to state health officials that the cases were caused by “a novel coronavirus.” At that point, the number of known infections was approaching 180.

Dec. 1 may have been the official start of the local novel coronavirus outbreak that would become a national epidemic that would become the COVID-19 pandemic. But it certainly wasn’t the first actual case. As early as March 2020, a review of health records suggested that the first case had actually been seen in Wuhan as early as Nov. 17, and that there had been a steady trickle of new cases for two weeks before that first official case.

It would take another two years before scientists were able to pin down what had been suspected all along—the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was almost certainly the “wet” market in Wuhan, where a wide variety of wild-caught animals were sold for food and traditional medicine. A similar market was the source of the original SARS virus in 2002. A combination of health care records and genetic information suggests that the virus made the jump from animals to humans at least twice in the closing months of 2019, though exactly which animal played host to the virus before it made the jump remains unclear.

With all that, it’s hard to give an official date for when the pandemic that has now generated at least 650 million cases and 6.6 million deaths around the world really began. But today is as good a day as any to say, “This is the day the world changed.”

To mark this third anniversary, it seems like a good time to hit some “highlights” of the pandemic’s early days and how it was covered at Daily Kos—much of which, I’m going to tell you right now, easily devolves into “look at all the stuff I got wrong.”

Dec. 31, 2019 — A doctor in China unofficially notifies World Health Organization (WHO) that it has detected a cluster of cases involving “a pneumonia of unknown etiology.” China would send an official notification to WHO on Jan. 3. 

Jan. 21, 2020 — China confirms that the disease is spreading from person to person. At this point, the number of known cases in China is approaching 300, and there are single cases known in Japan, Thailand, and South Korea.

Jan. 23, 2020 — The first article on the outbreak at Daily Kos. That article got some things right.

The outbreak that began near the city of Wuhan is caused by a coronavirus, one of a number of viruses in a poorly understood group that also includes SARS. … The ease with which the new virus is apparently spread through the air, or through superficial contact, suggests that it may be transferred even more readily than the SARS virus, which killed at least 800 in its initial outbreak.

And some things very, very wrong. 

...officials everywhere have been faster to act, faster to impose restrictions, and faster to identify the underlying cause of the outbreak than they had been in the case of SARS. Restricting the spread of an emerging disease remains a near-impossible task, but health officials around the world are giving it a really extraordinary try.

Jan. 31, 2020 — It would be a week before the novel coronavirus reached the front page of Daily Kos again. In our defense, there were a few things going on at the time—such as Donald Trump facing his first impeachment trial in the Senate. That second article actually came on the same day that the House impeachment managers wrapped up their case. Even at this point, what would become a very familiar theme was starting to emerge. And so was that theme of getting something right, followed by getting something else so very wrong.

... it is time to consider the possible effects of prolonged disruption from interrupted supply chains, shortages of items manufactured in China, or further restrictions of travel and trade. Companies, educational facilities, and city managers are already looking at what it could mean if there is an extended disruption of normal activities—not because the coronavirus is likely to have the devastating reach of the 1918 flu, but because the steps necessary to arrest its spread may mean taking unfamiliar actions.

At that point, the frequency of covered increased sharply—which included me providing now highly cringe-worthy praise of China’s management of the outbreak—and it wouldn’t be a week before the “P” word was being thrown around.

Feb. 5, 2020 — What had started with a tiny cluster of cases a month earlier was now approaching 25,000, and small numbers of cases had appeared in an astounding 24 countries. It was a testimony to both how easily the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be spread, and to how interconnected our world has become.

Still, 2019-nCoV is not yet a global pandemic. Despite some alarming cases, including a number of infections aboard a now-quarantined cruise ship, it remains an outbreak with just one real epicenter. However, keeping things that way is going to be difficult. And expensive.

Feb. 6, 2020 — Just a day later came news of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of a group of doctors in Wuhan who had risked their careers to buck both local and state officials and get out the news about the initial outbreak. Li was a previously healthy 34-year-old. His death would make him not just a martyr to the case of transparency, but a signpost for how bad things might become. Even so, half of the post this day was devoted to staying hopeful that the outbreak in China was slowing down, that measures seemed to be preventing a similar outbreak elsewhere, and hey, didn’t SARS burn out just a few weeks after its first appearance?

It would be easy to present a version of this story that played up all the things that were right in these early articles—showing that this virus would be more transmissible than SARS, warnings about the need for quick intervention to isolate cases when detected, walking through the evidence to show that the virus was not the product of a weapons lab, and predictions about coming impacts to fragile international supply chains—but there was just as much wrong. That included praising policy in China that was not only brutal, but may have contributed to spreading the disease by encouraging people to hide symptoms. There was also a lot of happy, hopeful, “don’t panic” talk that utterly missed the boat on the real scale of the threat and the necessary steps to check the coming pandemic. Also, as happened way too many times over the next year, I repeatedly got lost in the statistics, grinding away at numbers to see if I could squeeze just one hint of a rainbow out of all those dark clouds.

The level of naivete can easily be expressed by this headline from Feb. 11, 2020.

Novel coronavirus deaths exceed 1,000. Are there more grim milestones ahead?

It’s safe to say the answer was “yes.” The number of deaths would double in one week, and of course, that was barely the start of a graph that would lead to 6,641,418, as of today.

Three years later, reviewing those early reports about what would eventually be the COVID-19 pandemic leaves me with a lot of embarrassment. It’s hard to find anything in there that seems all that prescient—or all that useful—this far down the line.

One thing that does stand out in these early reports is just how rarely Donald Trump gets mentioned in connection with the virus, because that’s how little he was involved in doing anything about it. It wouldn’t be until Feb. 26, 2020, that Trump finally got around to creating his infamous task force on the virus, the one that Mike Pence would nominally lead, but which Trump would turn into a platform for promoting quack cures and attacking science.

That came one day after what may have been the most accurate statement issued by any official to that point. 

On Tuesday, Nancy Messonier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that Americans can expect to see the COVID-19 coronavirus spread within the United States, and that “disruption to everyday life may be severe.“ Messonier acknowledged in a press briefing, “This whole situation may seem overwhelming,” before revealing that she had been warning her own children that they needed to prepare for what’s coming. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more exactly when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

After making that statement, Messonier was carefully removed from public speaking roles, sidelined from her daily briefings, and not made a part of Trump’s task force.

But no one may have given a better summary of what was coming than she did less than two months after the first announcement from WHO.