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Nurses at Italy's Cremona Hospital, near Milan. Photo: AFP Photo / Paolo Miranda.

COVID-19: How it happened

We take a look at how the global pandemic began, how it spread, and how countries responded.

The COVID-19 pandemic came to light on 31 December 2019 with an alert to the WHO China office, and the speed with which it has spread across the globe has been rivalled only by how rapidly it has changed the lives of billions of people worldwide. As countries head into a period of lockdown, economies tank and people lose jobs, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis with no end in sight.

At the time of publication, the Australian government has just announced a slew of new restrictive measures on once-taken-for-granted freedoms.

From midnight on March 25, Australians will no longer be able to go to weddings with more than five people present (including the couple and the celebrant) or attend funerals with more than 10 mourners, and Australians are now officially banned from leaving the country.

No more real estate inspections, auctions, cinemas, pubs, swimming pools, tattoos, saunas, gyms or museums, and if you want a haircut, you now have to keep appointments to 30 minutes or less.

Staying in and keeping socially distanced from friends and family has already become the norm, but how did we get here?


Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV), and this particular strain causes pneumonia-like symptoms.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus, and it spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The origins of this new coronavirus are unclear. However, scientists believe it may have mutated and jumped species from a bat or pangolin (a scaly armadillo-like mammal), much like the cases of SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), which found their origins in civet cats and camels respectively.

Scientists have ruled out rumours of a lab-based origin for the coronavirus, and have identified markers in the way COVID-19 reacts with the human genome which suggest that it is a result of natural selection and not bioengineering.

Cases were first identified in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in Central China, which has a population of more than 11 million. On January 7, officials announced they had identified a new virus, according to the WHO. On January 11, China announced its first death, and two days later the first foreign case was confirmed in Thailand.


By January 23, Wuhan had been effectively shut down, with all planes, trains, buses, subways and other forms of transport cancelled and stopped from leaving the city. At this point, only 581 cases had been confirmed globally (571 in China) with seven deaths, all in Hubei.

January 25 saw the first Australian cases, as four men, three from NSW and one from Victoria, presented with symptoms. All four had recently flown back to Australia from China and had been in Wuhan.

By January 30, the WHO declared the new coronavirus a “global emergency”.


As the virus started to gain a hold in Australia, the states, territories and various health bodies argued about how best to tackle a crisis not seen before in modern history.

In February, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and its president Dr Harry Nespolon criticised the government’s response to the outbreak, saying the lack of government planning was “risking people’s health”.

“Australia needs to implement a national plan for dealing with potential pandemics,” he said. “This isn’t the first and won’t be the last. If we don’t address these problems now, we’re risking people’s health.

“While we have a national plan for pandemic influenza, it has not been implemented. Not implementing a plan is as good as not having a plan.”

Nespolon pointed to the confusion around which type of masks were appropriate for GPs to wear as one of the many failures of communication between states and territories.

“We are also getting different advice from the states and territories on the tests for coronavirus and who should be taking them. Should they be done by a GP in a clinic, or should they be done in a hospital in a negative pressure room?

“So, at a time when GPs are on heightened alert and may be seeing more patients than usual, we have the extra burden of needing to call around to various health agencies to work out what the current advice is.”

Europe’s first large outbreak of the virus, occurring in Italy, prompted officials to cancel sporting events and stop passengers travelling by train to and from the country.

The number of cases of the virus in Italy exploded from five to 152 with three deaths in mid-February.

Roadblocks were set up in at least 10 towns in Lombardy at the epicentre of the outbreak, to keep people from leaving or arriving.

Buses, trains and other forms of public transport – including boats in Venice – were being disinfected, Veneto regional governor Luca Zaia told reporters.

Museums were ordered to shut down in Venice, as well as in neighbouring Lombardy, which, with at least 110 confirmed cases, was the epicentre of the viral outbreak in the country.

Italy is now in complete lockdown and is seen as the worst-affected nation after China, with 63,927 cases and 6077 deaths as of March 24. Italy has now surpassed China with the most COVID-19 deaths.


By March, the first Australian death due to COVID-19 occurred, and cases of the virus were found in an aged care home.

James Kwan, 78, passed away in a Perth hospital on March 1. He had been recently airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan after an outbreak.

Shortly after, it was confirmed that a 50-year-old woman working at a BaptistCare aged care facility in Sydney’s north had contracted the virus, and this led to 11 residents being put into isolation. Three subsequently passed away.

There have since been other cases in residents and staff reported around Australia, which has led to facilities enforcing strict visitation rules, such as allowing only two visitors per day and barring non-essential outside workers from entering facilities.

A positive COVID-19 presentation at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital led to 15 staff members, including 10 nurses, being tested. All eventually tested negative to the virus and have returned to work, a spokesperson confirmed.

On March 11, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Since then, countries such as the UK and India – with populations of 66 million and 1.3 billion respectively – have announced lockdowns, restricting any movement apart from work and shopping for food and medical supplies. By that point, terms such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ had become part of the global lexicon.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus. Photo: AFP


As of March 26, Australia had 2613 confirmed cases of the virus and 11 deaths. It had implemented strict congregation restrictions while emphasising the importance of social distancing (1.5m from others) to flatten the curve and avoid the ‘pinch’ – the point at which there would not be enough respirators for the patients who need them.

Australia enforced restrictions on people entering the country from China seven days after the first case was confirmed here. Anyone entering Australia who had been in China within the previous 14 days had to go to another country for a period before entering Australia.

In comparison, the US stopped all arrivals from China 11 days after its first confirmed case; the UK enforced self-isolation on arrivals from China on the same day it announced its first confirmed case; and New Zealand enforced self-isolation on arrivals from China 25 days before it had announced a confirmed case. Then it banned any entries 15 days after its first confirmed case.

Australia closed non-essential businesses 58 days after its first COVID-19 case, similar to the US (56 days, though not all states) and the UK (51 days) but behind New Zealand, which acted within 25 days.

Wuhan has announced an easing of its lockdown measures 62 days after they were announced and after five days of no newly confirmed cases.

People are now allowed into Wuhan if they are healthy and without fever, and residents can leave their isolation and return to work if they have been tested for COVID-19 and are free of symptoms.

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