Looking back on two years of a global health crisis

No one envisioned that the last two years would be as deadly and dreadful as they turned out to be.

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Medical personnel help each other suit up at a federal COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Northlake on Mar. 22, 2020. The state had just gone into lockdown.

Medical personnel help each other suit up at a federal COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Northlake on Mar. 22, 2020. The state had just gone into lockdown.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Back in March 2020, the signs of a global public health crisis in the making were emerging at a rapid clip.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization, alarmed at the rapid spread of a new coronavirus and fearful that countries weren’t taking it seriously, declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

On March 16, Illinois’ first victim of the virus died: Patricia Frieson, a retired nurse from Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.

On March 20, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order on the advice of public health experts. Illinois joined the ranks of states and countries shutting down all but essential businesses and services to slow the spread of a virus that was two to three times more contagious than the flu.

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The same day of Pritzker’s announcement, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 163 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total to 585. Another death, of a Cook County woman in her 70s, was reported.

On March 25, 2020, Frieson’s sister, Wanda Bailey, also died of COVID-19.

Worldwide, 250,000 cases of COVID-19, including 15,000 in the U.S., were reported around that time.

It was all alarming, without a doubt. But far worse was yet to come.

At the time of Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, many people envisioned it lasting, at most, a couple of months. The virus would quickly run its course. Those working from home would soon be back to the office or newsroom. Businesses and restaurants would reopen. Holiday parties would take place. Life would resume as normal.

Instead, the world changed, over two harrowing, brutal years of the worst global health crisis in a century.

To date, close to 1 million people in the U.S. have died, and over 79 million have contracted COVID-19. Worldwide, the numbers are even more staggering: 6 million dead, and over 453 million cases.

In Illinois, 33,075 people have died, while over 3 million have contracted the virus.

The toll, in death and sickness and mental anguish, has been staggering. Stress caused by the pandemic, including social isolation, job loss and grief over losing loved ones and friends, “have contributed to an increase in psychological distress on an unusually wide scale,” as a Yale School of Medicine article puts it.

Putting COVID behind us

The light at the end of the tunnel shone brightly when vaccines — developed in record time, proven safe and effective and quickly given emergency approval — began to be distributed in December 2021.

Because of those vaccines, the U.S. and other countries are, step by step, putting COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror. New infections, deaths and hospitalizations are declining. The Omicron surge is weakening.

Life is returning to normal, and that is indeed cause for celebration.

It’s great to look ahead. But it’s important to remember the millions of victims, and support the millions more who are still grieving the loss of loved ones and friends.

The group Marked by COVID, as NPR reports, is aiming to build memorials to the victims of COVID in cities across the country and is also lobbying for a national day of remembrance on the first Monday of March each year. A resolution to that effect has been introduced in the U.S. House.

We favor both ideas. We also think America would do well to designate a day in honor of the first responders and essential workers — cops, store clerks, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, and on and on — who kept the world going while a deadly virus ravaged the nation.

Let’s remember, too, that all it takes is another variant, more resistant to vaccines, and the world risks being upended once again.

Mask mandates have been lifted in Illinois and Chicago, but masks still make good sense in crowded indoor environments. Vaccines, of course, make the most sense. If you haven’t gotten the shot, go make an appointment now.

In Chicago, vaccination rates remain stubbornly low in some Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot pointed out at a recent meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Overall, Black Chicagoans are the least-vaccinated group in the city: Just 55% of Black residents have gotten the shot, compared to 67% of Latinos, 71% of whites and 77% of Asians, according to the city’s COVID dashboard.

Sadly, those numbers explain why Black Chicagoans are also more likely to die of COVID — a truth that must be hammered home, over and over.

“You have to tell people the sad reality,” as Lightfoot told us.

Continued outreach to holdouts is a must. That includes holdouts in some Downstate areas with below-average vaccination rates.

The pandemic, as experts have repeatedly said, will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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