Peering through the dust settling from the chaos of last year, we are trying to see into the unknown of the coming year, hoping for the best. Irrespective of what our hopes for 2020 were, our expectations for 2021 seem to centre on things going back to normal.
The 14 December 2020 issue of Time magazine, containing the traditional ‘year-in-retrospect’ pieces, had a red X on the cover. The magazine does this in a year that has been deemed extremely difficult for humanity. This is the fourth time the magazine has used this symbol in the last 75 years. Was the year that we have just closed indeed the “worst year in history”, as Time labelled it?
Film critic Stephanie Zachareck used a more restrained tone when she named 2020 “a year you’ll never want to revisit,” explaining why this year holds a place amongst the worst years in history. Our generation is not familiar with the devastation brought by the two world wars or the Great Depression, thus the pandemic has found us utterly unprepared to cope with it. The dominant feeling generated by the present health crisis is that of a lack of control: it is as if the world has started to crumble before our very eyes, although, in reality, it was already crumbling, Zachareck says.
“Sometimes a single word defines an era”, says the editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “Pandemic” was the word of the year in 2020, according to Merriam-Webster. The first increases in online searches for the word in the dictionary were recorded from January 20, the date when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the USA. By the beginning of March, the term had 4000% more searches compared to 2019. Other terms that were used increasingly frequently in popular searches were “coronavirus”, “unprecedented” and “quarantine”.
SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 have been so well covered by the press that only the two world wars have had broader coverage (47% of the articles in The Economist and 46% of those published by The New York Times focused on the new coronavirus). The pandemic cast a shadow over many of the events planned for 2020, and there are sure to be consequences that will reverberate beyond the borders of this year.
Events woven into the fabric of a complicated year
January saw the beginning of the last phase of the impeachment of President Donald Trump—who would have become the third president in the history of the USA to be subjected to this fate, after Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1998. A month later, however, the impeachment procedure that had been keeping the whole country in suspense ended with Trump’s acquittal on charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. In November, Trump lost the presidential elections to Joe Biden, but said that the elections had been rigged and took legal action to challenge Biden’s victory. Although these accusations have been rejected by judges, the rhetoric of the president worked to dilute the very principles of liberal democracy.
The assassination of Iranian general Quassem Soleimani in Baghdad at the beginning of the year, in an attack lead by the US, has deepened the tensions between the US and Iran, stirring up fears regarding the possibility of another war. The tension between the two states was fuelled throughout the year, growing menacingly at the end of last month when Moshen Fakhrizadh-Mahabadi, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, was assassinated. Israel was the number one suspect. One of the possible consequences of this attack might be Iran’s exit from the nuclear agreement signed in 2015, a decision which could change the scenery of 2021, or even that of the whole next decade.
The year we have left behind has started a new chapter of British but also European history, after the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, leaving the European community more fragile than it had already been over the last few years.
2020 will also stand out in the memory of Americans due to the waves of protest generated by the murder of George Floyd. These protests spread far beyond the American border, reviving the discussion on racism, justice, and equality.
2020 was also a year in which climate concerns have mounted. Australia faced its worst fire season. Richard Thornton, who leads the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Council, believes that this is exactly what the future looks like in a world of climate change. 2020 closed as the warmest decade since the beginning of global temperature measurements, with record high temperatures, comparable to those of 2016, despite La Niña, which had a cooling effect but did not manage to reduce the global temperature, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
The crisis that captured the planet’s attention
The interest aroused by an inevitable pandemic is natural, says journalist Brian Walsh, underlining that SARS-CoV-2 marked the return of an old and extremely dangerous enemy: throughout history, viruses and bacteria have claimed more victims than earthquakes and even wars. Only a century ago, the Spanish flu killed around 50 to 100 million people.
Throughout the 20th century, the mortality caused by infectious diseases dropped in the US by 0,8% each year (with temporary growths during the Spanish flu and during the AIDS epidemic in 1980), according to epidemiologist Marc Lipstich. But in reality, infectious diseases have not only not disappeared, but are more numerous than ever. The number of new infectious diseases (like SARS, HIV, and COVID-19) have increased almost fourfold in the last century.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a humbling lesson that humanity was forced to accept precisely when it was fervently seeking out recipes for immortality, says Romanian historian Lucian Boia. Boia reminds us of the satisfaction one had when talking about the Spanish flu as the last epidemic to hit Europe suddenly, and how this feeling melted when faced with the virus that changed the world’s scenery (and habits).
“The mysterious virus in Wuhan”
Few people must have felt concern in December 2019 on account of the news of a mysterious pneumonia which affected several inhabitants in Wuhan. The cases of illness did not become breaking news for a long time, especially since the Chinese authorities seemed to be managing the problem, on which they did not communicate any alarming data, fairly well.
It was not until December 31 that Wuhan authorities acknowledged that hospitals were treating dozens of cases of a pneumonia with an unknown cause. On the 20th of January 2020, it was announced that “the mysterious virus in Wuhan”, as it had initially been called, was transmitted from human to human. The virus was identified as a coronavirus strain, and Thailand, Japan, and South Korea were already recording their first cases of infection.
Although China has now implemented aggressive measures to prevent the spread of the virus, until the end of January, they showed no evidence that they considered limiting the epidemic as a priority. At the beginning of the year, state-controlled press labelled doctors who talked about the growing number of cases in hospitals as liars. Li Wenliang, the first doctor who issued a warning on the gravity of the situation and who also passed away in February due to the new coronavirus, was investigated for “disturbing public order”. China intentionally downplayed the seriousness of the epidemic with which they were confronted, while reducing the export in surgical masks and other articles necessary during a pandemic—this is the conclusion of a report drafted by the US Department of Homeland Security.
Counting the months
February, 11 – the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) announced that the name of the new coronavirus is “the type 2 coronavirus of severe acute respiratory syndrome – SARS-CoV-2”. On the same day, WHO announced that the name of the illness caused by the new coronavirus is “COVID-19”.
February, 15 – Europe recorded the first death of a person infected with the new coronavirus – an 80-year-old Chinese tourist. It was only the beginning.
February, 24 – several countries in the Middle East were reporting cases and deaths caused by COVID-19. Then, on 29 February, the United States announced the first death (what they thought would be one of only a handful) caused by the new coronavirus, and on 11 March the WHO declared a coronavirus pandemic.
Europeans were still hoping that the epidemic could be easily stopped. But on the 23rd of February, Italian authorities were already quarantining 10 small towns southeast of Milan, according to an analysis by the Financial Times.
European researchers were actually focusing on the success with which China and South Korea seemed to have managed the epidemic. However, what happened in Lombardy was the nightmare that woke them up to reality, believes Igor Rudan, chair of international health and molecular medicine at the University of Edinburgh. The city of Bergamo would record, in March-April 2020, an increase in the mortality rate by 464% compared to the regular average of the same months between 2015 and 2019. This increase was also observed in other states, although the numbers are smaller. In the aforementioned period, the number of deaths increased by 60% in Belgium, by 51% in Spain, by 42% in The Netherlands and by 34% in France.
On the 17th of March, Angela Merkel announced the decision of the EU member states to prohibit the entrance of people, for 30 days, from the extra-community space in the EU, declaring that Germany would implement this measure immediately. The circulation inside the EU without restrictions only resumed in June. External borders were opened in July.
In Europe (but not only in Europe), many states declared a state of emergency and their populations were subjected to periods of quarantine. Already by the 2nd of April over 1 million cases had been recorded, in 171 countries. At least 51 000 deaths had been recorded. Almost 10 million Americans were left unemployed.
In May, the WHO warned that SARS-CoV-2 “might never disappear”, after the model of the HIV or the smallpox viruses which have not been exterminated to this day.
Immediately, the discussion about the way in which one could strike a balance between saving citizens’ lives and saving the economy intensified. Researchers began to talk about the possibility of a second and third wave of the pandemic, following the model of the Spanish flu. In May, Germany and Japan, two of the world’s strongest economies, were entering a recession. David Beasly, the director of the World Food Program, warned that poor countries were about to be struck by a famine of “biblical proportions”.
The closing of schools and the unequal access to technology generated a real “generational catastrophe”, declared the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres.
An evaluation of the true loss generated by the present crisis will only be possible when it is over. The much expected outcome has been delayed for now. After the summer vacations and the good but fragile news regarding the decrease in mortality, a second wave hit countries that were still being affected by the first wave, and the new SARS-CoV-2 strain from Great Britain, which causes the virus to be up to 70% more contagious, raised fresh concerns. Although the United Kingdom is isolated from the rest of the world, closing borders is a measure which may have come too late, since the new strain has already been identified in Canada and a few other European states.
In the middle of the second wave
Italy, Great Britain, and Germany are among the countries that maintained more or less strict restrictions around Christmas, although the previously imposed quarantine should have allowed for a relaxation around the holidays. As the New York Times has pointed out, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte changed the nuance of one of his speeches at the last minute, changing the message from ‘saving Christmas’ to ‘saving the population during Christmas’.
At the end of the year, Europe was faced with a resurgence in mortality rates. The moment overlapped with the beginning of the vaccinations against the new coronavirus, both in Europe and around the world.
In the Netherlands, the pandemic caused a record number of deaths, the highest number since the Second World War. The Prime Minister announced new restrictions at the beginning of the month, which would be maintained until the 19th of January.
The data provided by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows a considerable increase in the number of cases. Beginning in mid-October, the growth pattern of the deaths was even bigger than that of the cases. Out of the 30 countries analysed, 24 had an ascending mortality curve. In 4 countries the mortality stalled (Albania, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland), while in Moldova and Belarus it decreased.
The United Stated recorded over 63 000 deaths caused by COVID-19 in December alone, the heaviest toll since the beginning of the pandemic. With over 346 000 deaths caused by COVID-19, the US lost more people to SARS-CoV-2 than any other country; although it hosts less than a 20th of the world’s population, one out of five deaths there were officially attributed to COVID-19. Epidemiologist Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, however, believes that the worst days of the pandemic are yet to come.
Good news from a difficult year
The long-awaited answer to the question regarding when the pandemic will die out depends on the success of the massive expansion of vaccinations in 2021, and the national implementation of measures to limit infections, public health analysts say.
On the 27th of December, the EU started its vaccination campaign against COVID-19, in a “moving moment of unity” as the President of the European Commission called it, shortly after the Phizer/BioNTech serum was approved.
In the US, the vaccination process started on 14 December. Anthony Fauci declared that by next year’s summer 70-85% of the population could be vaccinated, the country thus reaching a high level of immunity. Dozens of vaccinated people talked to The New York Times reporters about the side effects of the vaccine. Among them is Matthew Harris, who wrote about the fever and joint pain following the vaccination, explaining that while the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel, people need to know that it is possible to experience side effects. If the doctors do not honestly explain this process, they cannot expect people to trust them, Harris explains.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, vaccines are safe and efficient. The vaccine’s side effects are proof that it is working, and these go away in a few days. Therefore, instead of being a reason for concern, they are part of the best news we have received for a long time, experts say.
Beyond media evaluations, every person has reason to put 2020 down as one of the toughest years of their life.
This was a hard year for everyone, especially for the exhausted medical workers, who lost colleagues on this bizarre war front. They were worried for themselves and their families, and complained that the second wave caught the hospitals as unprepared as the first wave did. A year went by in which we prematurely lost grandparents, brothers, sisters, and friends, but this year also forced us to rewrite the way in which we mourn our dear ones and accept their loss. It was a year in which we learned to even celebrate special events like weddings differently, in harsh cases even meaning that couples, cruelly separated by the pandemic, had to get married via ZOOM.
There were scary times for all those we might think of as immune to the crisis, like the generation of Holocaust survivors. For them, the news about a lack of equipment and medical supplies, and the growing number of deaths, brought back painful memories.
2020’s touching gestures of solidarity were intertwined with acts of irresponsibility, and the bad and good news followed one another in an exhausting rush. We woke up more tempted than ever to focus on ourselves, whether we claimed responsibility to manage the crisis situation on our own, or we pressed the courage pedal, and lived according to the rules which applied before the pandemic. We processed our pain individually and collectively, and we often failed to admit that we were experiencing the same fears we had always had, only now expressed through extremely different reactions.
We realised that our lives and the normality we had comfortably wrapped ourselves in were as long-lasting as the traces left by a dandelion. We would have seen many dandelions in spring, had the pandemic not taken them away from us. Perhaps this is the most important lesson to learn from a year which is already done: to invest in what the pandemic—in what life and death themselves—can never steal from us.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.