On February 20, 2020, “Patient One,” a 38-year-old man, was admitted to Codogno Hospital in northern Italy with breathing problems. For the doctors and nurses on duty, it was not an uncommon condition. They performed the usual tests — but all came back negative.
Dr. Laura Ricevuti oversaw the ward that night. “The wife told us that around 10 days earlier, the patient had dinner with a colleague who had returned from China, who had then developed a temperature,” Ricevuti explains.
“Once we knew this… we decided to break protocol and get the SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus] swab ready, also given that he was negative for the H1N1 [swine flu] virus swab,” she said. “And then, we had the first diagnosis in Italy of a patient with coronavirus.
“Amongst ourselves, we said it was impossible that the first case was in Codogno,” she added. “We couldn't believe it. We thought this was a faraway problem that was to do with China, but it was already here with us, and not from that February 20th but probably from much earlier.”
Ricevuti’s colleague, Dr. Francesco Tursi, recalls the horror that unfolded over the following hours.
“We heard about one, two, three cases, and we were immediately submerged with patients with serious breathing problems,” he said. “They couldn’t breathe. We didn’t even have time to think. This literally changed our lives.”
Tursi himself caught the virus days later and spent a month in the hospital.
As cases multiplied, northern Italy went into lockdown. It was too little, too late. In the following days, several European countries reported new cases. By the time the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, Spain, France and several other European nations had imposed hard lockdowns. It was the first time Europe had seen such drastic measures since World War II.
Britain did not follow its European neighbors, instead delaying lockdown measures for a further two weeks against scientific advice. Epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London was then a senior government scientific advisor.
“Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” Ferguson told a committee of lawmakers in June.
Britain would suffer Europe’s highest coronavirus death toll in 2020. Its economy was also among the worst hit, shrinking by 10%. Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself caught the virus, spending several days in intensive care.
“The U.K. is really a great example of this notion that when you try to choose between public health or the economy, you lose both,” Doctor Peter Drobac, a global health expert at the University of Oxford told VOA. “When cases were clearly on the rise, the government flirted with the idea of natural herd immunity, and actually pulled back on testing and stopped contact tracing in a bid to try to let the virus begin to spread in a controlled way through the population. That of course was a catastrophic error.”
Sweden also resisted imposing lockdown measures. At first, it seemed to work as infections remained relatively low. Across the world, lockdown skeptics hailed the “Swedish model” — until the death rate began to soar far above those of neighboring Scandinavian countries.
Elsewhere governments grappled with the scale of the pandemic. In Turkey, doctors accused the government of trying to hide the true scale of the pandemic as hospitals filled with patients. Russia was also accused of a cover-up, with doctors claiming the true death toll was likely three times higher than the official total of 57,000 deaths in 2020.
As lockdowns continued into the summer, governments across Europe pumped billions into their economies to try to keep businesses afloat and people in jobs. Public debt soared.
But as a bleak 2020 drew to an end, hope dawned. Medical trials showed that vaccines developed in record time by Pfizer and AstraZeneca offered remarkable protection against COVID-19, with Britain the first Western country to roll out a mass vaccination program.
“We cannot underestimate the scale of achievement that this has been,” said Drobac. “To go from the identification of a new virus and [genetically] sequence it only in January of 2020, to 11 months later having a number of safe and extraordinarily effective vaccines, that’s incredible. This is normally a decade or more process.”
Other vaccines from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and others have also shown promising results. Vaccines developed by China and Russia are also being trialed in some European countries.
Dangers still lurk ahead for Europe. The Czech Republic is battling a resurgence of the virus and has one of the highest death rates in the world, while infections remain high in several other countries, even as lockdown measures are being eased across the continent with businesses reopening and children returning to school.
There are fears over new, more resistant strains of the virus circulating in Europe. Government miscommunication has been blamed for a low uptake of the AstraZeneca vaccine in France and Germany, with the European Union’s vaccination program already significantly lagging those in Britain, the United States and Israel.
Back in Codogno, murals on the town’s ancient walls depict doctors and nurses as battle-hardened heroes. The frontline medical staff who watched first-hand as the pandemic unfolded a year ago continue to treat coronavirus patients.
The pandemic has changed life in countless ways. It’s not over yet.