Here's Robert Exley's detailed reveiew of 2020: First up is January
“All I want is a 2020 vision” sang Debbie Harry, the legendary front woman for American punk band Blondie in their 1978 hit single ‘Picture This’, however anyone who saw a vision of this year coming would have probably thrown away their eyes in disgust.
It is somewhat of an understatement to say that the last twelve months have been challenging and oddly enough, as will be told, the “People’s game” would kind of be central to the story of 2020 and the virus which ended up making its horrific mark on the year.
Thinking back twelve months ago, most people’s perspective at the dawn of the 2020s (be it from an Arsenal or a wider social perspective) would have been that it surely could not have been any worse than the decade which had just departed. The 2010s had seen the social strife of austerity and Brexit, while for Arsenal it would be the first decade since the 1960s where the club had failed to pick up at least one League title.
The end of 2019 saw the demise of Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg’s unspectacular reign as caretaker before Mikel Arteta’s appointment as boss just five days before Christmas. Meanwhile, in the World at large, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party had won a landslide majority of eighty seats, paving the way for the UK’s exit from the EU on 31st January 2020, effectively meaning that the four-year battle between “Leavers” and “Remainers” was over as the matter was as good as resolved, in terms of Johnson’s Government of “Leavers” having the numbers to push domestic Brexit legislation over the line. So surely from here, things would only get easier….right?
1st January 2020: From a personal point of view, 2020 started in a fairly low-key manner i.e. not leaving the house at all (somewhat in training for the year ahead!), as the entire Premiership programme would be covered live by BT Sport, with Arsenal headlining the day at 8PM with a home fixture against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man Utd side. The result would be a 2-0 victory for the Gunners with goals from Nicolas Pepe and Sokratis, giving Arsenal their first victory under Mikel Arteta, following draws against Everton, Bournemouth and a defeat against Chelsea, despite a decent performance from Arsenal in the latter fixture.
However, this would not be the event of the day which would set the tone for the year ahead. That would occur over on the other side of the globe, with the closure of the Huanan Seafood Market that very same day for "cleaning and disinfection”. A day earlier, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia of “unknown etiology”, as the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission confirmed 27 cases of a “Pneumonia outbreak”, advising the public to wear face masks and to avoid enclosed public places and crowded areas.
This had occurred mainly because a Chinese doctor called Li Wenliang (who later died of this unknown new disease within six weeks) warned colleagues about a new coronavirus strain through a social media platform called WeChat. The first cluster of cases occurred roughly between the date of the UK’s General Election and the announcement of Mikel Arteta as Gunners boss, though this would be unbeknown to the rest of the World outside of Wuhan.
The story of the new mysterious virus emerging from Wuhan does appear on the Daily Mail’s online website via Reuters on New Year’s Eve, however, the front pages of the British newspapers make zero reference whatsoever to the growing health crisis in China and mainly concentrate on Boris Johnson’s pronouncement of the 2020s being a “Decade of Optimism”, the Forest fires which had been ripping through Australia and the Climate Crisis, where - if you remember that far back – Swedish teenager Greta Thurnberg and Extinction Rebellion had spent most of 2019 warning about the impending end to life as we know it on earth.
2nd January 2020: Still over in Wuhan, 41 admitted hospital patients within the province were confirmed by a laboratory to have contracted the novel virus, 27 of whom had direct exposure to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The Central Hospital of Wuhan however banned its staff from discussing the disease publicly.
3rd January 2020: U.S. President Donald Trump orders a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport, which led to the death ofIranian major general Qasem Soleimani. This was an event which many at the time feared would ignite conflict in the Middle East and even a Third Gulf War and yet, amazingly, it somehow managed to end up a mere footnote to the story of 2020. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail Online reports that cases of the mysterious virus had now risen to 41 (eleven of which were deemed severe), with fears of a resurgence of SARS in the region.
6th January 2020: Newspaper reports on “another SARS like virus” appearing in China of which “Experts have no idea what it is or where it has come from”. That same day, Arsenal take on a Leeds United side challenging for promotion from the Championship into the top-flight, in the third round of the FA Cup. Despite the West Yorkshire side putting up a tough performance, its Arsenal who progress with a 1-0 victory
7th January 2020: Health officials in China announce they have identified a new infection belonging to the same family of viruses as SARS, MERS and the common cold. A new strain of coronavirus that hadn’t been encountered before in humans. The story of the new mysterious virus is beginning to somewhat bubble under on social media and on the inside pages of the press, however, doesn’t yet make its way to the front pages of the British newspapers, though the Daily Mirror stated that the Mysterious new virus had now infected 59 people, seven of whom were now in a critical condition.
The story also has created enough of a storm for a middle-aged woman standing around five to ten metres away from me on my lunch hour in Brixton town centre to almost turn a summersault when I coughed, even with my hand over my mouth. Aside from this though, there is yet to be anything in the way of general anxiety among the population of the UK at large that this new mysterious virus could disrupt life as we know it in the UK.
By 09/01/2020, the popular press become preoccupied with Prince Harry and Megan’s announcement that they are to quit the UK and step back from their position as senior royals. A decision which had supposedly outraged the Queen, whom they had apparently failed to inform on the matter.
11th January 2020: Arsenal’s trip to Crystal Palace ends in a 1-1 draw and a sending off for Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. A day prior, 19-year-old Emile Smith-Rowe heads to Danny Cowley’s Huddersfield Town on loan. Meanwhile. over in Wuhan, Chinese state media would confirm the first death relating to the new mystery disease – a 61-year-old man who regularly visited the Huanan Seafood Market. The Novel virus however is yet to appear on the front pages of the UK press. On 15/01/2020, the Daily Express goes with the front-page headline “Big Ben Must Bong for Brexit”.
13th January 2020: In Thailand, the first recorded case of the novel Coronavirus outside of China had occurred. The patient was a Thai woman who had previously visited the city of Wuhan
16th January 2020: The Sun newspaper – the paper with the UK’s 2nd largest circulation – reports of that a second person from Wuhan aged 69 had been killed by a “Deadly mystery virus”. The article also stated that within Wuhan, 41 patients had been taken ill with the novel coronavirus and that the Japanese Ministry of Health had confirmed that a man in his 30s who had previously visited Wuhan earlier in the month had also tested positive.
The Sun’s piece stated that “officials warn the fatal coronavirus could sweep the globe”. With hindsight, this turns out to be a rare moment of a sensationalist Sun article actually turning out to be true. It has to be remembered though that despite these stories filtering out of the UK media, there was still a general feeling here in Britain that it was highly unlikely that this virus would actually make its way here and cause us much trouble. Over the years there had been numerous outbreaks which occurred in far flung parts of the globe, which never significantly hit the UK.
There had been several outbreaks of Ebola dating back as far as 1976, the SARS outbreak between 2002 and 2004, outbreaks of bird flu dating back to 2003, MERS in 2013 and the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009-2010. None of these viruses seriously affected life in the UK. In the case of the Swine Flu, the British media were forecasting a possible 65,000 deaths as a result of this virus and a best-case scenario of 3,100 deaths, but many people at the time actually viewed its threat as somewhat of a laughing stock. There had even been a view around a decade ago that Governments were duped by Big Pharma into unnecessarily stockpiling medication in response to the pandemic (though it does subsequently come as somewhat of a shock to learn that as many as 392 deaths in the UK were actually attributed to the Swine flu pandemic, as my memory of it seems to be that of a state of alarm which disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived)
18th January 2020: Arsenal’s first Saturday 3PM fixture of 2020 with the visit of Sheffield United and my own first visit to N5 of 2020, perched high up in the upper tier. Gabriel Martinelli’s opener would be cancelled out by a John Fleck equaliser, with the game ending in a 1-1 draw. Despite the fact that the Novel Coronavirus has now spread outside of China, its appearance is still yet to be recorded in the UK and the story is still yet to trouble the front pages of the UK press with Brexit and “Megxit” still dominating the news.
21st January 2020: A visit to Stamford Bridge for Arsenal, just three weeks on from an unlucky defeat to Chelsea at home in what would be an unusual 8.15PM kick off for the benefit of BT Sport. Just a day prior, authorities in China had confirmed that the new virus could be transmitted between humans.
Arsenal were down to ten men after former Blue David Luiz finds himself sent off for conceding a penalty from which Arsenal fell behind. The goal however cancelled out by a wonder goal from Martinelli running most of the length of the pitch, which at home on the sofa I cheered home like a Grand National winner. A further goal from Hector Bellerin gave Arsenal a 2-2 draw.
With regard to the new virus, first confirmed cases were now recorded in South Korea and the USA a day earlier, as well asover 500 new cases now reported in cities across China with 17 deaths.
It would be another six days before Arsenal would play again, by which point the first Novel Coronavirus cases were now appearing in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Vietnam, France (the first confirmed case in Mainland Europe on 24/01/2020), Nepal, Australia, Canada and Malaysia.
The city of Wuhan, as well as other municipal areas of the Hubei province had been locked down on 23/01/2020. It is on this date in which the Novel Coronavirus finally hits a UK front page, with the Daily Mail stating “UK on Killer Virus Alert” and that: “arrivals into UK from the infected City (of Wuhan) say “All We Got is a Leaflet”.
23-24th January 2020: The virus finally begins to make an impact on the front pages of the UK press, with reference to it on the front of the Daily Mail, The Times, Financial Times, The I Newspaper, The Independent, The Guardian, The Metro, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph and The Sun, the latter going with the headline “World War Flu”. The Daily Mail quoted passengers arriving from Wuhan as saying they had “not been subject to any screening” whatsoever at Heathrow.
25th January 2020: The effect of the novel coronavirus was now being felt on Soho’s China Town. Despite the celebrations of Chinese New Year, the area had seen a 50% drop in footfall in what should have been the annual peak in terms of business takings. One day earlier saw the first government COBRA meeting on Covid-19, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson would be absent. A spokesperson for the PM however stated that the U.K. was “well prepared for any new diseases”. One day later, Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson sent the government a report warning that the novel virus' infectivity could be higher than that of the Spanish flu in the years following World War one.
26th January 2020: The Daily Mail reports on an “Airlift to Save Britons Trapped By Virus” over in China. The World of Sports is also rocked by the death of Basketball hero Kobe Bryant as a result of a helicopter crash
27th January 2020: Arsenal head to Bournemouth, for a Monday night 4th Round FA Cup tie at the Vitality Stadium. The Gunners took an early lead with a thumping goal from Bukayo Saka. Eddie Nketiah added a second midway through the first half. A late goal from Sam Surridge for the Cherries couldn’t prevent a 2-1 victory as Arsenal progressed to the fifth round. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s front page reports on the Novel Coronavirus that “Experts Fear that 100,000 people May have new Virus Worldwide”
31st January 2020: Arsenal seal the loan signing of Cedric Soares from Southampton. Two days prior, the Gunners also signed Pablo Mari on loan from Brazilian side Flamengo.
In the real word though, there’s only one story in town – it’s “Brexit Day”. Three and a half years on from the EU referendum, the UK finally leaves the EU. The day would also be notable however for the first reported case of the Coronavirus hitting the UK. Two Chinese nationals in York were taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle after testing positive for the virus. Also, 83 Brits evacuated from Wuhan arriving in the UK would be quarantined.
The WHO also declares the new virus as a “global emergency”, with the London Evening Standard reporting that the “Killer Virus Now Spreading Fast”.
Meanwhile, LBC’s James O’Brien would receive calls from Brits remaining in China amid the lockdown, telling of experiences then alien, but now familiar to people in Britain. O’Brien’s coverage of the virus was of great importance with regard to my being informed about and on high alert regarding the novel coronavirus in the months prior to it hitting the UK. Especially with first-hand accounts from callers in China and in Mainland Europe when the virus went on to strike there.
I’d started my current employment just a month prior and my commute to work on the Victoria Line involved being under the ground for the entirety of the journey. In my previous job, the commute had been mostly above ground and on my commute home I’d much preferred to listen to streamed music to wind down. Instead, without an internet signal I now listened to the downloaded podcast of O’Brien’s show, broadcasted live earlier in the day between 10AM and 1PM.
Listening to accounts of how the virus was spreading overseas, while being on a ram packed rush hour Tube train only hit home to me exactly how vulnerable we were in London, should this thing take a hold here. And as will be seen in the coming months, the Novel Coronavirus taking a hold in the UK would be coming sooner rather than later.