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Masks, uncertainty and Omicron
How the pandemic unfolded in 2021
If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, 2021 was its reckoning. Indians waltzed into the new year with wide-eyed optimism, only to be thrust into the most devastating wave of Covid-19.
What started with the airborne-surface contact debate about Covid-19 transmission has culminated into a race for booster shots. Sandwiched between these extremes were stories about anti-vaxxers, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a tottering Olympics, supply chain woes, and plenty more.
These are our picks of the standout pandemic stories in 2021.
Airborne or surface contact? That was the dominant question in what seems like a simpler time, considering we thought the worst was over and were blissfully ignorant about an impending second wave. January 2021 saw scientific consensus that Covid-19 is airborne and does not spread via surfaces. Researchers in the field of fluid mechanics even modelled Covid-19 transmission to conclude that aerosols spread faster and wider than droplets. Despite the consensus-slash-evidence, we are still disinfecting surfaces… perhaps as a force of habit.
The man with many mutations: In early 2020, a Covid-19 patient walked into a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. A year later, he became a case study when it was reported that the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid-19) in his body had 20-plus mutations. The unidentified man, whose autoimmune disorder meant he suffered a chronic Covid-19 infection for five months, helped researchers find a link between mutations in immunocompromised patients and future variants–including Delta and Omicron.
The vaxxer who fuelled the Covid-19 antivax movement: Michael Yeadon was the former vice president of Pfizer and a staunch advocate for inoculations. Then he became the world’s poster boy of Covid-19 vaccine disinformation. This story traces the devolution of Yeadon from eminent scientist to conspiracy theorist, how vaccine hesitancy spiked due to his claims, and how even lawmakers weren’t immune to his utter tosh.
India’s river of the dead: A country whose relatively-low pandemic death toll baffled epidemiologists suffered its second—and worst—Covid-19 wave. As oxygen shortages plagued Delhi, victims in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh were buried in shallow graves along the banks of the Ganga. While the state government denied bungling pandemic response, aerial images showed otherwise.
During this time, Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, who died in Afghanistan in July, captured the most heart-wrenching images of India’s brutal second wave.
Leak or no leak? June was the month of lab leak stories. The lab leak theory claims China hid the fact that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban interviewed scientists, US State Department investigators, officials from the Centers for Disease Control, and DRASTIC (the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19). The result: a whopper of an investigative story linking US-China interests in ‘gain-of-function research’, medical journal The Lancet, and the global non-profit, EcoHealth Alliance.
A disaster of Olympic proportions: The Tokyo Olympics were memorable for mostly wrong reasons. The Japanese public was opposed to the event because the country was witnessing a Covid-19 resurgence. Volunteers quit. Sponsors withdrew after it was decided that the games would have no spectators.
But the Olympics went ahead despite criticism and risks to public health. The result: an estrangement that affected athletes, many of whom expressed the importance of taking a mental time-out in an already-rough year. As for Japan, it suffered economic losses, including $820 million in unsold tickets alone.
In short supply: Before there was Covid-19, there was the US-China trade standoff, which made global logistics creak. That was the genesis of the (ongoing) global semiconductor shortage.
But the pandemic turned spark into fire–by first hitting demand in 2020, then affecting supply in 2021. There was a shortage of shipping containers. Ports got congested. And compounding these are labour shortages at a time when people are overordering. The result is a nightmare year for supply chain managers and inflation for consumers.
The president whose disbelief claimed his life: Tanzanian president John Magufuli called Covid-19 a myth. He refused to share data with the World Health Organisation. He rejected vaccines, called mask-wearers “unpatriotic”, and barred doctors from registering Covid-19 as a cause of death.
Then Magufuli died in March 2021. The official cause was heart failure. But whispers attribute his demise to the very pandemic he refused to acknowledge.
Magufuli’s denialism caused a staggering crisis in Tanzania, where death tolls are grossly underreported, Covid-19 victims are buried on the sly, and just 1.6% of the population is vaccinated.
Oxford-AstraZeneca, the unsung hero: Everyone’s talking about boosters. The US has greenlit Pfizer’s and Merck's anti-Covid-19 pills for high-risk people. Moderna claims its booster shot is effective against Omicron. Israel will give senior citizens their fourth shot, and much of the western world is shortening timelines between initial and booster shots even as World Health Organisation chief Tedros Ghebreyesus bemoans vaccine inequality.
Amidst the hullabaloo comes the revelation that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has saved more lives than its mRNA counterparts. And if a recent finding about its effectiveness against Omicron is to be believed, the jab could well save millions more.