Best of LifehackerBest of LifehackerWhether we’ve made a complicated recipe absurdly simple, illustrated how to survive a natural disaster, or explained a political crisis in terms even your great-grandma would understand, these are some of our favorite stories from the past year.
Even though the virus that causes COVID-19 was discovered in late 2019 (hence the name), it dominated 2020. Here at Lifehacker, we’ve been covering it since January, so let’s take a trip down memory lane and discuss what we’ve learned so far, month by month.
Beth is Lifehacker’s Senior Health Editor. She has written about health and science for over a decade, including two books: Outbreak! and Genetics 101. Her Wilks score is 302.
It was in January that the first known case of the new coronavirus, not yet named, appeared in the U.S. in Washington state. We published an explainer on what the coronavirus is and whether you should worry. At the time, news coverage seemed to take sides: either “everybody panic!” or “meh, it’s nothing.” The public health experts I follow were taking a different tack, eyeing it cautiously and saying “don’t worry, yet.”
We urged readers to use their nervous energy to get a flu shot, noting correctly (in retrospect) that the less flu there is going around, the better off we all are, whether there ends up being a pandemic or not. We also predicted, incorrectly, that there would likely be more flu deaths than coronavirus deaths by the end of the year.
We also told you about the Johns Hopkins tracker, and our screenshot taken near the end of the month reported 2,886 confirmed cases. The same website is still useful today, but the global case count stands above 82 million.
In February, the coronavirus finally was given a name (SARS-CoV-2 for the virus, COVID-19 for the disease) and things were starting to look serious. We gave you a guide on how to prepare without panicking that advised bookmarking the WHO and CDC coronavirus info pages, washing your hands, and considering what you’d do if schools and workplaces closed.
Based on public health recommendations of the time, we said not to buy masks unless you have a specific medical need for them. Scientists were still debating whether they were useful for the general public, but there was already a shortage for healthcare providers.
Cases ticked up, and in March schools and businesses started to close. Our advice turned practical: how to manage your pandemic anxiety, how to order takeout safely and ethically, and why you don’t need to bleach your groceries when you get home.
Congress voted on plans to send out $1200 coronavirus relief checks, and we answered your questions about those. Meanwhile, toward the end of the month, people in hard-hit cities began to leave town. Don’t do it, we said: you’re more likely to take the virus with you than to effectively escape it.
By the end of the month, one thing was clear, although many of us were still in denial about it: this wasn’t going to end soon.
Masks were finally on the menu in April, mainly cloth ones since the surgical kind were still in short supply. We wrote about how and when to wear a mask and how to keep it clean. COVID tests were still hard to get in many places, and there was some confusion about the different types. We had an explainer for you here.
Meanwhile, a rumor spread that last year’s bad flu season was actually COVID in disguise, and therefore we’ve already had it and don’t need to lock down. By now it’s clear that wasn’t the case, but in April it was worth a thoughtful debunking. The worst of the pandemic was still ahead of us.
With many businesses closed for months, we were all going a little bit stir crazy. This is the month that the documentary-style fearmongering movie Plandemic began circulating, and we published an explainer on everything it got wrong.
Meanwhile, people were spreading rumors about masks being useless or dangerous (they’re neither), so we addressed those, too.
This many months into the pandemic, we were still learning about the virus. Some, but not all, transmission is from people who have not yet developed symptoms, and that was tricky to understand and communicate. (We had an explainer for you here.) We were also learning about “long COVID,” the lingering symptoms that many people have even after they have supposedly recovered.
The first phase 3 trial of a coronavirus vaccine began in July, and we told you how to volunteer if you wanted to help out. We also learned that the coronavirus can be airborne, an idea some scientists had been arguing for months that finally started making it into public health advice.
Some leaders were arguing that the pandemic was already declining; an op-ed by our vice president insisted that there was no “second wave.” But it was clear by that point that cases were still trending upward and would be for a long time to come.
Meanwhile, the scams and conspiracy theories were in full swing, with viral videos claiming incorrectly that simple cures existed (hydroxychloroquine had long since jumped the shark) and John Oliver gave us some tips on talking to people in our lives who may have been sucked in.
In August, we realized we were staring down cold and flu season with coronavirus still raging. Here was our guide to getting through it all, including a reminder that flu shots are still important for all the same reasons as in January (although the death statistics were reversed this time).
Phones rolled out COVID tracking features, although they were somewhat confusing and are still probably too under-utilized to be very helpful.
Prepare now for a long winter, we advised; it was too late to hope that a vaccine could save the holidays.
Many schools reopened. Even though we’d like to wish that children and young people are immune, it was important to point out that they suffer from COVID too. Some universities reopened, saw spikes in cases, and proceeded to blame their students.
Blame the people in charge, we argued instead. Employers, universities, and governments have far more control over the trajectory of the pandemic than any individual. And yet, we were largely left on our own. The only way to track COVID outbreaks in schools was, and I believe still is, a website run by volunteer teachers who scour news stories for mentions of the virus.
President Trump and many of his contacts tested positive for COVID, possibly due to a superspreader event at the Rose Garden. White House staff had been routinely tested for COVID, but masks weren’t in common use. This amounted to a giant lesson in how testing isn’t very useful if it’s the only thing you’re doing. We also took the opportunity to discuss how to know when it’s safe to be around other people again after recovering from the virus.
News of a COVID outbreak in a cycling studio also drove home the point that following the rules won’t always protect you, if the rules aren’t actually good enough. (If cycling studios are allowed to stay open during a pandemic, stay the hell away from them, I say.)
We also had a chaotic and sometimes creative Halloween, with some people opting for indoor parties and others distributing candy on tables or staked dangerously into the ground.
Finally, there was good news. Moderna and Pfizer both announced results of their phase 3 clinical trials, and both showed that the vaccines were more than 90% effective. We just had those few promising numbers, until full data was released a few weeks later, but it finally felt safe to hope.
With cases spiking nearly everywhere in the country at once, we encouraged you to stay home for Thanksgiving. Some of you listened, and for that, we thank you.
We began a Vaccine Watch column here at Lifehacker, keeping an eye on the discussions that regulators and others were having about how a vaccine might finally be rolled out. By the end of the month, we knew who would be first in line for the vaccine: healthcare workers and residents of facilities like nursing homes.
The vaccine finally arrived. The FDA met in early December to grant emergency authorization to Pfizer’s vaccine, and did the same for Moderna’s a week later. We covered how they made a vaccine so fast, an astounding achievement.
We also explained how mRNA vaccines work, since these are a new technology and there was plenty of confusion around what they actually do.
While the vaccine seems to be safe and effective, we know that there will always be surprises when something moves from small tests to widespread use in the population. The first of these was a small number of severe allergic reactions.
We also learned about a new variant of the coronavirus spreading in England that seems to be more transmissible than other strains. We’ll learn in the coming months whether this changes anything or whether it’s just a new flavor of the same disaster we’ve been dealing with all year.
There is, after all, hope on the horizon. A new round of relief checks is finally on the way, even if it is too little and too late. And President-elect Biden has a plan to improve the country’s response to the coronavirus—we’ll see how that goes.