100 days of coronavirus in Australia: How an unexpected pandemic changed the world forever

On 25 January, the first case of coronavirus on Australian soil was recorded in a man visiting Victoria from Wuhan. More than three months later, schools have been closed, businesses are shuttered, hundreds of thousands have been pushed onto welfare and 96 Australians have died. Here’s how it happened.

People queue for access to a Centrelink Service Centre in Sydney.

People queue for access to a Centrelink Service Centre in Sydney. Source: AAP

31 December

As the world prepares to welcome a new decade, China informs the World Health Organization of a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases linked to a fish market in the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

A day earlier, a doctor in Wuhan had raised the alarm of a viral outbreak that he said appeared similar to SARS in a group chat with medical school classmates, who he urged to wear protective clothing.

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Disinfection work at Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.
Disinfection work at Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market. Source: Getty


Four days later, he was forced by Chinese authorities to sign a letter stating he had made “false comments” and “disturbed the social order". He was also told to shut up, or face arrest.

7 January

A new type of coronavirus - or nCoV for short - is formally identified by Chinese authorities.

11 January

A 61-year-old man in Wuhan dies after contracting coronavirus, marking the first fatality of the disease which will eventually claim the lives of more than 238,000.

13 January

In an early sign of things to come, a woman travelling to Thailand from Wuhan becomes the first person diagnosed with coronavirus outside of China.

23 January

Sydney Airport starts screening passengers arriving from Wuhan. By this point, , the vast majority in Wuhan.

More than 2,500 people have died from coronavirus in China.
Hospitals in China's Hubei province were soon overwhelmed. Source: Getty


24 January

A team at the , which they say could be available worldwide in six months.

“The team hopes to develop a vaccine over the next six months, which may be used to help contain this outbreak,” Professor Paul Young, the head of the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said.

“The vaccine would be distributed to first responders, helping to contain the virus from spreading around the world.”

25 January

Australia records its first confirmed case of coronavirus. The man in his 60s was visiting Victoria from Wuhan.

“Australia has world-class health systems with processes for the identification and treatment of cases, including isolation facilities in each state and territory. These processes have been activated,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

Shortly after, , while the travel advice for Hubei province is raised to “do not travel”.

28 January



The breakthrough is a crucial first step towards scientists developing better diagnostic tests, treatments and a vaccine for the virus.

30 January

WHO declares the novel coronavirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. So far, more than 170 people have died of the disease in China and the number of international cases is growing.

There are nine confirmed cases in Australia. 

WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus.
WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus. Source: AAP


He also said there was “no reason” for flight suspensions, border closures and quarantine for apparently healthy travellers. 

1 February 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces a travel ban on , unless they are Australian citizens, permanent residents or their immediate family.

Those that are allowed into Australia from China, where 250 people have died of the virus, are told to self-isolate for two weeks.

Qantas announces it will suspend its direct services to mainland China. 

2 February

A 44-year-old man becomes the first person to die of coronavirus outside China, after flying into the Philippines from Wuhan.

3 February

More than 200 Australians are evacuated from Wuhan on a Qantas flight before being taken to Christmas Island, an Australian territory approximately 350 kilometres from the Indonesian coast, for a 14-day quarantine period.

“We desperately need help from the government,” mother-of-two Australian citizen Ying Wang told SBS News from Wuhan. “We've been stuck at home for about a week, today is day six and we are running out of food.”

4 February

The Diamond Princess is the first of several cruise ships to suffer an outbreak of coronavirus on board. A total of 223 Australians are among the 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew on board.

Australians on the ship will end up being evacuated to a quarantine site near Darwin.

7 February

Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old ophthalmologist who tried to warn the world about the virus before being threatened with arrest by Chinese authorities, , sparking an outpouring of grief on social network site Weibo.

Dr Li Wenliang,  the whistleblowing doctor in Wuhan who first warned of the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who first warned of the outbreak of the coronavirus. Source: The New York Times


He is described as a “hero willing to speak the truth” and the hashtag #IWantFreedomOfSpeech trends on Chinese social media.

More than a month later, on 20 March, the and issue a “solemn apology” to his family. 

9 February

The global death toll . Close to 37,000 infections are recorded. 

It's been six months since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
It's been six months since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Source: Getty


11 February 

More than a month after the virus was first identified, it finally has an official name. The , explaining that “co” stands for corona, “vi” for virus, and “d” for disease, plus “19” for the year it was discovered. 

19 February

Iran announces its first COVID-19 cases after two virus-related deaths in the religious city of Qom. This was the first acknowledgment of an outbreak in the country.

Iranian army soldiers walk through a temporary hospital in Tehran, Iran.
Iranian army soldiers walk through a temporary hospital in Tehran, Iran. Source: AP


Before long, the number of deaths in the country would skyrocket to more than 6,000, making it one of the worst outbreaks in the world.

A month later, on 19 March, Iran’s health ministry announced that

21 February

Italy and two in the neighbouring region of Veneto, where an elderly man in the city of Padua would become the first Italian person to die from the virus. 

None of the infected had travelled to China, marking the first known instance of local transmission in the country.

26 February

COVID-19 has now spread to every continent except Antarctica.

29 February

In Washington, a man in his 50s becomes the first person to die of coronavirus in the United States. The state is the first of several to declare a state of emergency.

Just over two months later, the country’s death toll will have reached 66,000 - the highest of any country in the world.

1 March

. His 79-year-old wife, Theresa, was also treated for the virus.

4 March

A view of shelves at a supermarket in Brisbane.
A view of shelves at a supermarket in Brisbane. Source: AAP


after a rush of panic buying left supermarket shelves bare. Within a week, the limit would be reduced to two packs and .

A North Sydney . It marks the beginning of an outbreak at the Dorothy Henderson Lodge, which will eventually be connected with six deaths.

9 March

Italy, now the clear epicentre of the virus in Europe with more than 9,000 confirmed cases, announces a nation-wide lockdown of its 60 million residents.

Italy’s first COVID-19 patient was detected in February.
Italy’s first COVID-19 patient was detected in February. Source: Getty


"We're in a really confused state ... I'm not too sure what's going to happen in the future,” 27-year-old student Melis Aktas said from her apartment in Bergamo.

11 March

as the world reaches 118,000 confirmed cases and 4,291 deaths across 114 different countries.

It is the first time a pandemic has been sparked by a coronavirus.

12 March

The Australian government announces $17.6 billion in economic measures to keep Australians in jobs during the crisis.

Among the measures, , totalling almost $4.8 billion.

“Australia is not immune to the global coronavirus challenge but we have already taken steps to prepare for this looming international economic crisis,” Mr Morrison said.



As of the afternoon, 139 cases have been confirmed in Australia, including actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita.

13 March

The announcement is made on Friday and the prime minister infamously says he would still be attending a rugby league match between the Cronulla Sharks and the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Saturday night.

"The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved [Cronulla] Sharks, it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time,” he says.

Just hours later, a statement says .

16 March

There are now officially more cases of COVID-19 outside of mainland China than inside. Italy, which records 368 deaths in one day, Iran, Spain, and the United States have emerged as the new epicentres. Spain enforces a near nation-wide lockdown. 

In Australia, and a day after Mr Morrison announces that all overseas arrivals to Australia will be forced to self-isolate for 14 days, effectively putting an end to tourism.

18 March

Australia declares a human biosecurity emergency, giving Health Minister Greg Hunt more powers to manage the outbreak in Australia. This is the .

The first move made under the declaration is to ban international cruise ships from entering Australian ports.

and travel advice for the entire world is lifted to level 4 - “do not travel”.

"This is a once-in-a-100-year-type event," Mr Morrison says. "Do not go overseas. That is a very clear instruction."

19 March

Qantas and Jetstar announce they will be , while China reports no new locally transmitted cases for the first time since the pandemic began.

Australia's borders will remain closed for some time.
Australia's borders will remain closed for some time. Source: AAP


Several despite the Australian government's order to remain open after a number of cases are identified in students. 

In anticipation of school closures in the public sector,

Over in the United Kingdom, as their COVID-19 death toll hit 100.

20 March

. Premier Peter Gutwein says they are the “toughest border measures in the country”. 

Three people test positive for coronavirus in , a day after almost 2,700 passengers disembarked in Sydney.

21 March

Some of New South Wales’ most iconic beaches, including Bondi, to remain 1.5 metres from other people and stay home other than for essential activities.

Crowds defying social distancing rules at Bondi.
Crowds defying social distancing rules at Bondi. Source: AAP


Health Minister Greg Hunt slams the behaviour of the beachgoers. "If you are breaking those rules, you are not only putting yourself but the rest of Australia at risk," he says.

22 March

In a drastic ramping up of measures to stem the outbreak, as the number of cases in Australia hits 1,315.

Hours before the national announcement, and announced they would be and that school holidays would be brought forward to allow schools to close.

"This is not something that we do lightly, but it’s clear that if we don’t take this step, more Victorians will contract coronavirus, our hospitals will be overwhelmed and more Victorians will die," Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said.

23 March

New York City becomes the epicentre of the outbreak in the United States with 21,000 confirmed cases, while

In Victoria, schools are closed and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian encourages .

Mutual obligation requirements for welfare recipients, such as job interviews, have been suspended again until June 1.
Mutual obligation requirements for welfare recipients, such as job interviews, have been suspended again until June 1. Source: AAP


Australians are confronted with Depression-era scenes of long lines outside Centrelink. The

24 March

The , the first such delay in the Games’ 124-year modern history.

A second round of stimulus measures passes the Australian Parliament, allowing people “in financial distress” to access .



It also includes a $550 “coronavirus supplement” to be paid to welfare recipients on top of their usual payments. This effectively doubles the Newstart payment, which was renamed JobSeeker on 20 March.

25 March

India institutes a nationwide “total lockdown”, . More than one-third of the global population is now under some form of lockdown according to AFP.

27 March

The United States now has more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world, surpassing China (81,782) and Italy (80,589) at 82,404 cases.

A Samaritan's Purse crew works on building an emergency field hospital equipped with a respiratory unit in New York's Central Park across from the Mount Sinai Hospital, Sunday, March 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A temporary hospital is set up in New York's Central Park. Source: AAP


28 March

Australia records 473 new cases, the highest daily tally so far. The increase is substantially larger than previous days, with the week’s average sitting at 360 new cases every 24 hours. 

29 March

Australians share random acts of kindness .

30 March

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a bid to stem the wave of people being forced onto welfare as a result of the pandemic.

The $1,500-per-fortnight JobKeeper payment will be given to employers who have lost 30 per cent or more of their revenue to pass along to their employees so they can keep them on the books.

It’s the biggest economic announcement in Australia’s history. "Today, our government has made a decision ... that no government has made before,” Mr Morrison said.

31 March

The state of New York becomes the new global epicentre with 75,795 cases, surpassing the province of Hubei, China, where the outbreak first began.



2 April

There are now . On the same day, Spain reports a daily death toll of 950 people - the highest single-day toll of any country

5 April 

. He’s discharged a week later after spending some time in intensive care. “The NHS has saved my life,” he says after being discharged.

7 April

Ninety-five per cent of America’s population is now under lockdown, according to Business Insider.

The federal government releases its coronavirus modelling, which shows . Mr Morrison says the growth rate of new cases is falling “well beyond our expectations”.

By this point, 5,795 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Australia and 46 have died.

8 April

WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus after US President Donald Trump says it is "China-centric" and .

The Senate - the largest economic package in Australia’s history. 

10 April

China ends its lockdown of Wuhan as several European countries prepare to ease restrictions. 

The United Kingdom reports its worst daily fatality rate for a second day in a row with 980 deaths.

12 April

Two hospitals in Tasmania's north-west region are forced to close after a cluster of .

“I am sorry we need to do this but at the end of the day we need to get on top of this,” Premier Peter Gutwein says. 

14 April

It's revealed another aged care nurse in Sydney went to work at .

15 April

Donald Trump halts funding to the World Health Organization over its handling of the pandemic.

A Perth man becomes the first Australian to be jailed for repeatedly breaking COVID-19 quarantine to visit his girlfriend.

16 April

Global COVID-19 cases surpass two million, meaning infections around the world doubled in two weeks.

18 April

. He was a crew member on the virus-plagued Artania cruise ship, which was docked off the West Australian coast.

19 April

Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory record , while NSW reports only six cases, and Victoria just one. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne , citing the need for greater transparency. China sternly rejects the idea.

, the holy fasting month that begins later that week.

23 April

The controversy-laden . By this date, the boat has been linked to 21 coronavirus deaths and at least 600 infections - about 10 per cent of Australia’s COVID-19 cases.

A 'Thank You Illawarra' sign hangs from the stern of the Ruby Princess cruise ship as it departs Port Kembla.
A 'Thank You Illawarra' sign hangs from the stern of the Ruby Princess cruise ship as it departs Port Kembla. Source: AAP


24 April

In a bizarre press conference, and exposing them to “very powerful light” could cure them.

In Australia, COVID-19 testing is . Premier Berejiklian announces students in NSW will return to school for one day a week from 11 May.

25 April

At dawn, to pay their respects on Anzac Day after public services and marches were cancelled due to social distancing restrictions.

Jim Crockett and Suzanne, residents at a retirement village are seen outside their home at dawn on Anzac Day in Perth.
Jim Crockett and Suzanne, residents at a retirement village are seen outside their home at dawn on Anzac Day in Perth. Source: AAP


26 April

The , COVIDSafe, amid some privacy concerns. 

Based on Singapore’s TraceTogether software, the app tracks your movements and informs you if you have .

On its first day, almost two million people download the app. The government says 40 per cent of the population, or approximately 10 million people, need to get the app for it to be successful.

27 April

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says after nearly five weeks at the maximum level four restrictions.

28 April

Premier Berejiklian announces social distancing restrictions will be eased in NSW, .

Days earlier, a number of other states also announced some low-level restrictions would be eased. 

In Queensland, people are now allowed to travel up to 50 kilometres from their home, West Australians are allowed to gather in groups of 10, and parks and outdoor recreational areas are opened in the Northern Territory. 

30 April

It's coronavirus-free status was short-lived however, with another case confirmed the next week. 

1 May

“Australians deserve an early mark for the work that they’ve done,” Mr Morrison says as he announces that the .

Only around 1,000 cases remain active across the country, he says. A total of 6,767 cases have been recorded in Australia. 

4 May

Australia’s  after another resident of the Newmarch House aged care facility dies.

Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy says 4.25 million Australians have signed up for COVIDSafe in the week since it launched.

Jacinda Ardern says she'll join Australia's national cabinet meeting to discuss allowing travel between the two countries. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. 

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at .


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20 min read
Published 5 May 2020 at 5:48am
By Nadine Silva, Maani Truu