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One very jumbled year: Glimpses of AP’s pandemic journalism

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Hugging loved ones. Shaking hands. Going to school. Grabbing dinner at a restaurant. Visiting elderly family members.

Most Americans didn’t know this week last year was their last chance at normalcy. And while people have learned to adjust, the coronavirus pandemic has upended – and taken – millions of lives across the globe. Add the upheaval of a nation’s reckoning with racism and injustice along with a historic presidential election, and the pandemic year becomes more than about the virus. It’s also the year racial, socioeconomic and health care issues have demanded attention.

The Associated Press was there – for all of it. From the day the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic to the first clinical trial of a vaccine and chronicling the path to a new normal, here is a taste of AP’s storytelling about every corner of the world as a jumbled, sometimes wrenching, year unfolded.

THE ECONOMY

From India to Argentina, untold millions who were already struggling to get by on the economic margins had their lives made even harder by pandemic lockdowns, layoffs and the loss of a chance to earn from a hard day’s work. Uncertainty became the order of the day.

In America, the most heavily hit were the front line workers who pack and deliver supplies, care for the sick and elderly, and keep streets and buildings clean. They are mostly women, people of color and more likely to be immigrants. Mothers, in particular, have been disproportionally pushed out of the workforce in the U.S. as the pandemic leaves parents with fewer child care options and the added burden of navigating distance learning.

Meanwhile, small businesses around the world have been fighting for survival amid the economic fallout from the pandemic. AP journalists told the stories of those struggling businesses, which help define and sustain neighborhoods. The stakes for their survival are high: The U.N. estimated that businesses with fewer than 250 workers account for two-thirds of employment worldwide.

In the U.S., millions fell into poverty and faced a holiday season with little money to buy gifts, cook large festive meals or pay all their bills. The struggles of low-income workers and the unemployed contributed to a weak holiday shopping season that dragged on the overall economy. By late last year, the economy had shed a shocking 22 million jobs after the pandemic struck.

The pandemic has also tested entrepreneurship and taught valuable lessons about surviving and innovating, whether it’s doing more business remotely, grabbing the opportunity to make a new product or sacrificing some business to cut costs.

Meanwhile, creatives in New York City, one of America’s first virus hotspots, risked losing their restaurant jobs, which were a fallback given the city’s pre-pandemic vibrant restaurant scene. As the city managed to reopen, AP told the stories of those who were awakening to navigate a strange new normal.

The AP also examined the cruel paradox behind containing the outbreak: Quarantines, travel restrictions and business closures have brought everyday business to a halt, shoving the U.S. economy into recession for the first time since 2009.

INEQUALITY AND INJUSTICE

As the coronavirus tightened its grip across the country, it cut a particularly devastating swath through an already vulnerable population: Black Americans.

It became evident in just weeks after the pandemic hit the U.S. that Black people were bearing the brunt of the virus, on health and economic fronts. A history of systemic racism and inequity in access to health care and economic opportunity made many Black Americans far more vulnerable to the virus.

The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked protests against racial injustice. The nationwide unrest ignited by Floyd’s killing underscored the glaring injustice Black people experience in America: The virus and police were killing them at disproportionate rates.

Racial inequality underlies rage and despair, especially because the unrest coincides with an economic and health calamity, one that’s falling hardest on Black Americans – who are far more likely than white people to die of COVID-19. They work disproportionately in low-paying service jobs, which were slashed when restaurants and movie theaters closed as a health precaution and customers stayed away from hotels and airports.

The job cuts resulting from the pandemic recession have fallen heavily on lower-income workers across the service sector, while employees in higher-paying industries have gained jobs as well as income since early last year.

Meanwhile, bigotry toward Asian Americans in the U.S. was fueled by the news that COVID-19 first appeared in China. It spurred racist memes on social media that portrayed Chinese people as bat eaters responsible for spreading the virus and reviving century-old tropes about Asian food being dirty. And it didn’t help that former President Donald Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

HEALTH AND SCIENCE

Amid the chaos of the pandemic’s early days, doctors who faced the first coronavirus onslaught reached across oceans and language barriers in an unprecedented effort to advise colleagues trying to save lives in the dark. YouTube videos describing autopsy findings and X-rays swapped on Twitter and WhatsApp spontaneously filled the gaps, documenting the oral history of Italy’s outbreak as it unfolded.

As the virus continued to spread around the world, researchers exposed the frightening likelihood of silent spread of the virus by asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers. The coronavirus is invisible to the naked eye, yet it is seemingly everywhere.

All the while, as deaths from the coronavirus relentlessly mounted into the hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of doctors and patients rushed to use drugs before they could be proved safe or effective. It wasn’t until mid-June – nearly six months in – when the first evidence came that a drug could improve survival.

In Bronx, New York, almost no place has been hit as hard as Co-op City, the largest single residential development in the U.S. It houses one of the largest elderly communities in the nation and has a population that is more than 92% nonwhite.

Around the globe, teams of researchers raced to study the places and species from which the next pandemic may emerge. Companies also tested drugs that mimic the way the body fights COVID-19, hoping they can fill a key gap as vaccines remain months off for most people.

The U.S. mental health system was no exception to the outbreak as many providers struggled to continue treating patients amid the restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Residents at isolation hotels in New York were drained by the solitude, with one guest recovering from COVID-19 describing the loneliness as “crippling.”

In March 2020, an AP exclusive showed U.S. researchers in Seattle giving the first shots in the first test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine, leading off a worldwide hunt for protection even as the pandemic surged. The milestone marked just the beginning of a series of studies in people needed to prove whether the shots are safe and could work.

Today, more than 65 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, while nearly 35 million people have completed their vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

Questions arose early on about the nation’s ability to adequately test for the virus and trace the contacts of those infected with it. AP found that most states were not meeting the minimum level of coronavirus testing suggested by the U.S. government, that the turn-around time to get test results was exceeding federal guidelines and that local health departments didn’t have enough staffing to do adequate contact tracing.

Reporting from AP statehouses revealed that at least two-thirds of states were sharing the addresses of those who tested positive for the coronavirus with police and other first responders, and some of those were sharing the names. That created a potential chilling effect on people wanting to get tested.

As billions in federal money flowed to the states, AP found that some of the least-populated states with relatively few coronavirus cases were receiving an outsized share, even though the funding was designed to address virus-related expenses. In a federal loan program intended to help small businesses survive, AP found that large chains and franchises were poised to grab much of the money as soon as the program opened, previewing what actually happened.

Statehouse reporters also revealed that many governors’ own businesses were among the beneficiaries of the loan program. Meanwhile, AP reporting showed that hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers who had lost jobs during the pandemic fell through a gap in the government’s jobless aid formula and found themselves ineligible for a crucial unemployment benefit.

The pandemic also affected how people cast ballots during a presidential election. Even as more states adopted voting by mail, AP reporting showed the process is viewed skeptically by Black voters because of historical disenfranchisement and distrust of government institutions.

Pandemic-related job losses and a rapidly spreading virus also were hurting voter registration efforts aimed at Latinos. Fears of the virus raised worries that local polling places would not have enough poll workers on Election Day. Amid concerns about Postal Service delivery of mailed ballots, AP obtained agency data showing some key presidential battleground regions had some of the slowest mail delivery in the country.

LIFE, BUT CHANGED

The pandemic cut a swath through the daily life of many human beings, changing everything from the way Muslims marked Ramadan – in the United States and across the world – to the methods that those left behind by COVID-19 deaths dealt with grief, with saying goodbye and with the notion of mortality.

Among the hardest-hit places of all was New York City, where AP journalists documented a 24-hour period during the metropolis’ worst moments – in every corner of town.

Faces disappeared as protective masks went up – and quickly became a divisive political issue. Almost every corner of life took on a new, more fraught feeling, from the venerable U.S. Postal Service to how Halloween was perceived to the simple way that people connected. Even cash became something viewed with suspicion. Before anyone knew it, a dizzying pandemic spring had crossed an unsettling year and a pandemic winter was at hand – and still will be for more than a week.

In a world where suddenly less was happening in public, AP’s visual journalists captured the imagery of a pandemic – somber, harrowing and sometimes utterly empty:

-Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, reopened after authorities locked down the city for 76 days to stop the spread.

-An AP photojournalist captured the coronavirus’ hefty toll on Manaus, one of the hardest hit cities in Brazil.

-The passage of time took a toll on doctors and nurses who have been on the front lines of Italy’s coronavirus battle since the start.

-AP visited the homes of 12 veteran families struggling to honor spouses, parents and siblings during a lockdown that has sidelined many funeral traditions.

-Haunting images of New York City‘s almost entirely empty streets were captured from the back of a motorcycle.

-The pandemic heightened the fragility of Barcelona’s elderly working-class Poble Sec neighborhood.

-Peru experienced what officials called the most devastating hit to the country since 1492, when Europeans brought diseases like smallpox and measles to the Americas.

-The AP spent several days in the coronavirus unit at St. Jude’s Medical Center in California and followed four nurses and their families after their shifts were over.

AND FINALLY: A GLOBAL PANDEMIC JOURNAL

From Saudi Arabia to New York to London, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, AP staffers reported from across the world on how the pandemic affected them in AP’s yearlong Virus Diary series.

And around the world, as the pandemic’s second year unfolds with trepidation and more than a little bit of hope, the coverage continues.

___

Follow Associated Press journalist Aya Elamroussi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/aya_elamroussi

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