A photo of an 85-year-old Brazilian woman getting her first embrace in five months from a nurse through a transparent "hug curtain" was named the World Press Photo of the Year on Thursday.
It was the second time the Danish photographer who shot the image has won the prestigious award.
That the winning photo would portray the global pandemic was almost inevitable for the contest, which covered a year in which news around the globe was dominated by the virus that has killed nearly 3 million people, including more than 360,000 in hard-hit Brazil.
The image by Mads Nissen captured the moment Rosa Luzia Lunardi was hugged by nurse Adriana Silva da Costa Souza at the Viva Bem care home in Sao Paulo on Aug. 5.
A curtain of clear plastic — its yellow edges folded into a shape resembling a pair of butterfly wings — offers protection, as does the nurse's face mask.
"This iconic image of COVID-19 memorializes the most extraordinary moment of our lives, everywhere," jury member Kevin WY Lee said of the hug image. "I read vulnerability, loved ones, loss and separation, demise, but, importantly, also survival — all rolled into one graphic image. If you look at the image long enough, you'll see wings: a symbol of flight and hope."
The image taken by Nissen for the Panos Pictures agency and the Danish daily Politiken also won first prize in the contest's General News Singles category. Nissen also won World Press Photo of the Year in 2015 with an intimate photo of a gay couple in Russia.
"The main message of this image is empathy. It's love and compassion," Nissen said in a comment released by contest organizers.
"It's a really, really hard, grim situation, and then in that horror, in that suffering, I think this picture also brings some light," Nissen said at an online awards ceremony, after being told he had won the award and the 5,000-euro ($6,000) prize that goes with it.
Second place in the category was a far more grim COVID-19 image — the body of a suspected coronavirus victim tightly wrapped in plastic in a hospital in Indonesia on April 18 by Indonesian photographer Joshua Irwandi.
The pandemic even reached the Environment Singles category, with U.S. photographer Ralph Pace winning for his image of a curious California sea lion swimming toward a face mask drifting underwater at the Breakwater dive site in Monterey.
Judges looked at 74,470 photographs by 4,315 photographers before selecting winners in eight categories, including general news, sports, the environment and portraits.
The World Press Photo Story of the Year was awarded to Italian documentary photographer Antonio Faccilongo, working for Getty Reportage, for a series titled "Habibi" about Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons who smuggle their semen out of detention facilities in the hopes of raising a family.
Winner in the Spot News Singles category was an image embodying the debate on race in the United States. The photo by Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post shows a white man and a Black woman disagreeing about the removal of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., which depicts a freed slave kneeling at Abraham Lincoln's feet.
The Black Lives Matter movement was also featured, with Associated Press photographer John Minchillo's series about the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd taking third prize in the Spot News Stories category. The category was won by Italian Lorenzo Tugnoli, working for Contrasto, for a series of images documenting the devastating port blast in Beirut.
The Contemporary Issues Story category was won by Russian photographer Alexey Vasilyev with a series about the film industry in the northeast Russian region of Sakha. Associated Press photographer Maya Alleruzzo took second place in the category with a story about the Islamic State group enslaving Yazidi women in Iraq.