What were you doing this time last year? If we go back to 17 November 2019, we land on a Sunday. You probably had your feet up at home, or you may have been taking in the last of the spring sunshine before it gave way to the punishing heat of summer. Millions of us will have been maximising this day of rest, but halfway across the world, something sinister was brewing. One year ago today, COVID-19 was introduced to the world…
When was the first case of COVID-19 reported?
Several reports have confirmed that ‘patient zero’ in this deadly pandemic first reported symptoms on this date in 2019. Chinese authorities trace the first cluster of cases back to last November. That means we are, somewhat begrudgingly, marking our macabre ‘first anniversary’ with COVID-19. We didn’t get it a card, put it that way…
Thinking back 12 months, to that calm before a deadly storm, almost feels perverse. We all stood on the brink of catastrophe and didn’t really have a clue about it. Reminiscing about that previous Christmas and New Year period comes with an eerie sense of foreboding – something that is captured hauntingly well by the first news reports on coronavirus:
One year of COVID-19 – how the media first reported on the coronavirus outbreak:
BBC report compared to a ‘horror film’
This report, from 13 January 2020, is chillingly prescient. Chinese officials were quoted as saying that the disease was ‘under control’ after the first death from coronavirus was reported. Some Twitter users compared this report to the ‘beginning of a horror movie’, with one particular statement standing out like a sore thumb.
“At least in this instance, authorities say that they have acted early, and the virus has been contained.”
Rich Preston, BBC News
Exactly 9 months ago, just after 5am UK time on the 12 January, the first BBC TV report ran about the death of a man in central China from a peculiar new disease. Officials insisted it was all under control and would be nothing like the 2008 SARS outbreak which killed 770 people. pic.twitter.com/NpueEGwvqN
— Rich Preston (@RichPreston) October 12, 2020
CNN proved right over fears of ‘busy travel season’
Although we haven’t been able to obtain the earliest known footage of COVID-19 coverage from the US, an article which appears on CNN’s website from 7 January 2020 refers to the disease as a ‘mystery pneumonia’. Very little was known about the coronavirus at the turn of the year, as the potential for human-to-human transmission was still up for debate:
“Authorities have said that there has been no obvious evidence of human-to-human transmission so far – but there are still fears of a nationwide epidemic. The outbreak came just before the start of the busy Lunar New Year travel season, when hundreds of millions of Chinese are expected to be crammed into trains, buses, and planes for family reunions.”
Nectar Gan, CNN
eNCA feature with Zweli Mkhize ‘aged like milk’
Looking at our local coverage, eNCA waited until the end of January to broadcast a segment on coronavirus. They covered the reaction of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, who was set to embark upon a year he could never have possibly envisioned. In a haunting segment, Mkhize’s claims that coronavirus ‘will not become a national threat’ proved to be wishful thinking:
“We have activated outbreak response teams and we will be able to detect any new cases of coronavirus. Screenings of travellers returning from China will be screened upon arrival in South Africa. Citizens are advised against all non-essential travel to Wuhan. We have responded rapidly to ensure that COVID-19 will not become a national threat.”
SABC warned about ‘lack of treatments’
A week earlier, SABC proved to be a little quicker on the uptake. The state network hosted Dr. Sibongile Walaza, from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). She was very keen to stress that the biggest challenge facing humanity was the lack of ‘specific treatments or vaccines’ for the COVID-19 strain. How right her prediction proved to be…
“This type of coronavirus is new, and it comes from a large family of viruses. It is capable of changing its structure, and we’re seeing this is the first time that it is affecting humans. We know that a majority of cases are mild, and in most deaths, people have had underlying conditions. But we have no specific treatment or vaccine for this illness.”
Dr. Sibongile Walaza
The earliest story on TheSouthAfrican
Turning the spotlight on ourselves brought back some conflicting memories. Our first coronavirus article was shared on 21 January 2020, some 10 months ago, and shows how even the experts were caught severely off-guard.
Supplemented by AFP research, the as-yet-unknown virus was once again compared to a pneumonia-like disease. With the benefit of hindsight, it seemed the threat of COVID-19 was initially understated by World Health Organisation officials.
“The WHO said on Thursday it was not recommending any specific measures for travellers or restrictions on trade with China, and expressed confidence in the ability of Chinese authorities to contain the virus.”
‘China reports first death from mystery pneumonia outbreak’ – first published on 21 January 2020
COVID-19: South Africa’s first cases and deaths
FIRST CASE – Thursday 5 March 2020: A patient in his late thirties contracted the disease while visiting Italy. The KZN resident returned home on 1 March, and was placed in self-isolation due to the symptoms he was showing.
FIRST LOCAL TRANSMISSION – Thursday 12 March 2020: A South African citizen came into contact with a Chinese businessman in Free State, who had COVID-19 earlier in March.
FIRST DEATH – Friday 27 March 2020: Health Minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed that two deaths occurred in the Western Cape: One at a private hospital, and the other at a public hospital.
- You can see the most recent coronavirus stats for South Africa – published on 16 November – below: