Read Robert Exley's in-depth review of 2020: Here's February as Covid grows...
I was once told by someone that they hate the month of February on account of it being just like one long January the 32nd.
And pretty true to form, February 2020 would have a lot more in common with January than it would any other month of this year. The virus was at this point still that strange and dangerous thing which occurred on the other side of the world and while stories perpetuated that the virus could find its way here, the chances of it actually doing so still felt remote enough for life in the UK to carry on pretty much as normal. As it turned out though, February was to pretty much be the last days of the old “normal”.
1st February 2020: Despite there being two reported cases within the UK, the Novel Coronavirus still doesn’t make the front pages of the British newspapers, which are mainly dominated by Britain leaving the EU a day earlier. The exception however would be the Daily Star, who went with a headline of “Supervet Saves Dec’s Dog” on its cover (in essence, a trivial story over promoted in the news agenda, which bares uncanny resemblance to an old Armando Ianucci Show sketch from 2001)
2nd February 2020: Arsenal play out a 0-0 draw with Burnley away at Turf Moor. Notably however, the first death from the Novel virus from outside of China is recorded as a man from the Philippines
4th February 2020: Two Brits were quarantined aboard a Cruise ship called the Diamond Princess in the Port of Yokohama in Japan after testing positive for the Coronavirus
6th February 2020: The Metro Newspaper reported a rising number of racist attacks against Chinese people in the UK in the wake of Covid-19 (the somewhat ironic lack of rationality behind racism exemplified by being so fearful that someone might have a deadly contagious disease that you get close enough to them to commit a physical attack upon them!). Regrettably, Spurs star Dele Alli rather unhelpfully adds to the hostile climate with a social media post “joke”, which he was later required to apologise for.
7th - 9th February 2020: Very briefly, the Coronavirus would be knocked off of the news agenda by another force of nature in the form of Storm Ciara. The wind and heavy rainfall led to flood alerts and a loss of power for around half a million people across the UK. Meanwhile, the English Premiership has its first ever winter break, spread over two separate weekends. In the years to come however, this would probably be something forgotten by the fact that English football ended up needing a far longer break later on in the season.
11th February 2020: The novel Coronavirus is now officially named as Covid-19 by the WHO.
12th February 2020: The first case of Covid-19 in London was confirmed, bringing the UK's total of confirmed cases to 9. In response to London’s first confirmed case, one day later I had purchased a face mask online, in anticipation that if there had been a future Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, with London as a major international tourist and travel hub it would take a hold first within the Capital city and that the London Underground Victoria Line (which is often overcrowded at most points of travel, runs right through the middle of London and the route of which is entirely under the ground from start to finish) which I would be would be commuting to work on daily would be somewhat of a petri dish site of infection.
15th-16th February 2020: The British news is dominated by the suicide of TV personality Caroline Flack, which many observers believe was a direct result of media and social media hounding in relation to her somewhat troubled private life. Also, just one week after reeling from Storm Ciara, the UK would also be battered by Storm Dennis, which was actually severe enough to cause the death of two people and flooding to areas of Yorkshire, South Wales and the Midlands. Over the coming days, PM Boris Johnson would face criticism for failing to visit flood hit areas, while vacationing at the Chevening country estate in Kent.
The Gale force winds of Storm Dennis would also prevent me from travelling home to Essex to visit my parents by car (mainly at their insistence), though I would still happily purchase a ticket for Arsenal’s home game with Newcastle United on the Sunday via the Ticket Exchange.
Notably, it was Storm Dennis and not the thread of Covid-19 infection that had been the main source of anxiety for matchday attendance at this point, despite my mask purchase just 48 hours prior. Covid-19 was not yet enough of a serious worry to put me off match day attendance with 60,000 other people out in the open air. After a dull first half, Arsenal run out 4-0 winners with a second half rout of the Magpies, with goals from Aubameyang, Pepe, Ozil and Lacazette (the last two coming in the dying moments of the game).
19th February 2020: A key moment would occur in the story of Covid-19 during this week over in Italy and football would be very much central to the story. The previous Friday, a 38-year-old Italian tested positive in Codogno in Lombardy, Northern Italy. Within a week, 14 more cases were confirmed in the Lombardy area. In between this would be the Champions League Round of 16 first leg tie between Atalanta and Valencia at Milan’s San Siro Stadium within the Lombardy province, which would later be referred to as either “Game Zero” or a “biological bomb
The reasons why Atalanta would be playing their European fixtures at the San Siro stadium - over 60 kilometres from their own home ground in Bergamo - would be due to ground renovations which temporarily reduced the stadium’s capacity to just 16,000.
The match, which ended in a 4-1 win for Atalanta, would be highlighted as a major super spreader event as the 40,000 Atalanta fans would have included those who would have transported the virus from Milan back to the Bergamo Province with them. There would also be Valencia’s 2,500 travelling fans, who would have also transported the virus to Spain.
The game was held two days before the first case of locally transmitted Covid-19 was confirmed in Italy (as opposed to the virus being caught overseas and brought back to Italy). By 22nd February, there were an additional 60 cases in Lombardy with Italy’s first Covid-19 related death occurring that same day – the victim a 77-year-old woman. By the end of the month, Italy had experienced 984 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and eight associated deaths.
Covid-19 was also first reported in Valencia around this same time period, after a journalist who travelled to the match became the second person infected in the region. Also, more than a third of Valencia's squad became infected with Covid-19 after the match in Milan. Spain ended February with 54 new cases of Covid-19.
The sudden onset of Covid-19 spreading rapidly throughout Spain and Italy would immediately begin to alter perceptions in the UK as to exactly how insulated we could possibly be from this disease. An outbreak on the other side of the planet somewhere in the middle of China is one thing. The very same occurring in a country where many of us Brits go for a holiday on a short haul 2-hour flight on holiday is another. Suddenly, the threat feels more immediate.
20th February 2020: Arsenal head to the Greater Athens area to resume their Europa League campaign against Olympiacos. A goal from Alex Lacazette gave the Gunners a 1-0 victory
23rd February 2020: Arsenal face a visit from Mikel Arteta’s old side, Everton. As Storms Caira and Dennis prevented me returning home to visit my parents, I decided on heading home to watch the game on Sky rather than at the Emirates Stadium. My face mask ordered on Amazon ten days prior had also been sent there in error as opposed to my North London address and therefore I felt it imperative that I go and collect it before the matter reaches a critical stage in London (I’d toyed with the idea of simply ordering another one to send to my North London address – something a few weeks down the line I wished I had done, just to be in more plentiful supply).
The Gunners fell behind to a goal from Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the first minute, before Eddie Nketiah pulled Arsenal level midway through the first half. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put Arsenal in front on 33 minutes as North London’s finest went in 2-1 up at half time. Richarlison pulled the Toffeemen level in the first minute of the Second Half, within a minute however Aubameyang had restored Arsenal’s lead, as the Gunners evidentially ran out 3-2 winners.
24-26th February 2020: The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases within the UK at this point are still fairly low, however the fact that the virus has now hit Europe puts me on higher alert, along with the fact of the 14-day asymptomatic incubation period for the virus. Now I’m in receipt of the mask, I figure now is the time to use the thing. At this point, I’m not that concerned enough to wear it in shops or any other indoor environments, but to me the London Underground just seems like the perfect environment for Covid-19 superspreading. Now I’ve got the mask there’s no way I can get on a crowded tube train and not wear it.
The problem however is that mask wearing at this point is far from a normalised thing in London. In fact, it just seems to be me and tourists from the Far East that are doing so (the SARS outbreaks of the noughties made it a far more normalised thing to do over there than it was in London in February 2020).
What sways my thinking is the fact that both of my parents are over 70 years of age and also live on the same street as my aunt who is in her late eighties and in daily contact with them. Therefore, inadvertently passing the disease onto them is a real fear.
There’s also the wider civic duty towards vulnerable people I don’t know, who I could unwittingly pass the disease onto. My thinking is that being based in the densely populated Capital city, getting on the crowded Victoria Line tube daily and commuting right through the middle of London, should Covid-19 hit the UK, I’m more than likely to be among the first in the firing line. Of course, at this point there’s still a chance that it may not even hit the UK and I could be wearing this thing all for nothing, but one mantra totally dominates thinking at this point – I would much rather regret an over-reaction that didn’t kill anyone but made me look a bit strange in public, than an under-reaction that did.
The actual business of mask wearing on the tube in February 2020 however was horribly uncomfortable. I even had punks with green hair pointing at me and laughing as if I was some sort of freak. On the first occasion of wearing the mask, I put the thing on just around 100 metres from entering the tube and on the journey to the tube station, on the way I had people sarcastically coughing. While wearing it on the tube I was so self-conscious that as soon as a seat became available, I’d put on earphones, close my eyes and for the remainder of the journey pretend to be asleep, just to not make eye contact with anyone on the train. And throughout, I was hoping no-one I worked with spotted me on the tube, in case they thought I was some sort of nutter.
27th February 2020: After getting through most of the week of mask wearing while commuting on the tube, now came the acid test – attending a football game with 60,000 others. Like every Arsenal home game, there were going to be not only people from all over the Metropolis and beyond from the home counties, but also the usual Arsenal fans from all over the globe – including people from the site of Covid-19’s original outbreak - the Far East. There would also be fans from the opposition side, Olympiacos.
Greece had had its first confirmed Covid-19 case a day earlier (and that figure rose to seven within 72 hours). Mainland Europe was now also coming to replace the Far East as the epicentre of the outbreak (just one day prior, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases outside of China had surpassed the figure within China).
For me there were two fears of mask wearing at the Emirates – the first would be whether they’d let me into the stadium with it. The second was that my seat was about two rows from the pitch and the worry was that I’d be picked up by the TV cameras and go viral all over the World as some sort of prat whose fallen for the sensationalist scaremongering of the “MSM” (a phrase usually used by people not clever enough to work out that Mainstream Media is only two words, not three – but hey ho!). In order to allay these fears and also observe Covid safety, I settle on wearing a scarf over my mouth and nose and this I had managed to do for most of the game (being as it was late February, it would simply pass for keeping your face warm).
I’d watched the game from the North Bank and throughout the match my eyes were drawn to the away section across the other side of the pitch and wondering whether the seeds of Covid-19 was lurking there and whether I’m unwittingly attending some sort of mass Covid-19 superspreading event. Subsequently, there’s no real evidence that that game had any effect on North London’s Covid rate (though the rate was on the rise in Greece at the time of this fixture, in the long run it turned out they had dealt with the outbreak far better than we did). What did occur that night however was the seed of destruction for Arsenal’s hopes of returning to the Champions League through winning the Europa League.
Olympiacos pulled level on aggregate to take the game to extra time. Eight minutes from the end of extra time, a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang bicycle kick put Arsenal ahead. The Gunners however failed to see out the remaining eight minutes as the Greek side bagged a last-minute winner. Having kept my mouth and nose covered for nearly two and a half hours, I now rather irrationally threw caution to the wind. As the crowd began to exit the ground as injury time played out, I somehow thought I was Mikel Arteta myself, shouting instructions at the top of my voice to players out on the pitch just a few metres before me, as Arsenal pushed to bag a late winner. And the chance came, but Aubameyang failed to convert and ended up missing a sitter. Although the game finished 2-2 on aggregate Arsenal crashed out of Europe on away goals.
29th February 2020: A source of great relief for Arsenal fans. Arsenal’s record of 49 games unbeaten stood at threat from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side steamrollering their way through the 2019/20 season, having been unbeaten in the Premiership for 44 games and a record thus far of winning 26 games out of 27. A trip to relegation threatened Watford meant that few wouldn’t have envisaged that record not extending uncomfortably to just four short of Arsenal’s “invincibles”. Goals for Troy Deeney and two for Ismaila Sarr however meant an unexpected 3-0 victory for Watford and any attempts at usurping Arsenal’s 49ers put back to square one.
So therefore, whatever now happened with the rest of the 2019/20 season, one thing for certain is that the “49ers” place in history would remain intact and that this season’s formidable Liverpool side may well very soon be calling themselves Champions, but they won’t yet get to call themselves invincible.
However, what no-one could yet see is that despite Jurgen Klopp’s side needing to acquire just eleven more points to secure the title, Liverpool’s right to call themselves the Champions of England would be occurring later in the year, rather than sooner. Who at this point in time couldn’t have foreseen March and April passing us by and Liverpool not securing their first League title in three decades. That, however, is exactly how things panned out!