Annus horribilis: A look back at the top 12 stories of 2020

·14-min read

The year was dominated by news of the coronavirus, which rapidly spread from Wuhan, China, to kill more than 1.7 million people and forcing much of the world into lockdown while highlighting global inequalities and institutional failures. But other issues also grabbed the world’s attention, from the devastating Australia bushfires to global protests against racism.

AUSTRALIA BUSHFIRES

Record temperatures and severe drought gave rise to massive fires that roared across the Australian bush throughout the summer season in the southern hemisphere, peaking in December 2019 and January. More than 10.3 million hectares (103,000 sq km) were eventually burned, equal to the size of South Korea.

The fires created one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history, killing or displacing more than 3 billion animals including 60,000 koalas. At least nine firefighters were killed trying to combat the fires. More than 5,900 buildings including more than 2,800 homes were destroyed.

Scientists estimated that the wildfires pumped around 900 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, nearly double Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions over the preceding year.

The smoke became another hazard. More than 4,000 people were admitted to hospital because of smoke inhalation, which was linked to at least 445 deaths as the smoke shrouded cities including Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra. Some 20 million people, around 80 percent of the Australian population, were affected by the smoke, which travelled across the globe to create hazy skies 12,000km away in South America.

THE KILLING OF QASSEM SOLEIMANI

A January 3 US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s special Quds Force.

Soleimani, who had led the Quds Force since 1998 until his death, has been instrumental in establishing or expanding Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. His forces backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war as well as militant groups across the region including Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel, and the Houthis in Yemen. Soleimani’s backing of non-state armed groups had earned him EU sanctions and the Quds Force a spot on the US terrorist blacklist.

His death, which came days after a rocket strike on an Iraqi army base that killed an American civilian contractor and an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, sparked fears of regional destabilisation amid escalating tensions with the United States.

A popular and charismatic figure in Iran, huge crowds attended Soleimani’s funeral procession in Tehran on January 7, with at least 56 people killed in a stampede.

According to the Pentagon, which claimed responsibility for his death, Soleimani and his forces “were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”.

BRITAIN OFFICIALLY LEAVES THE EU

Britain officially left the EU as scheduled on January 31, although the UK has remained part of the EU single market and customs union during the agreed transition period with the de facto divorce delayed until December 31.

Negotiations on the two sides’ future relationship were stalled until a last-ditch deal on December 24 broke the impasse, giving goods from both sides tariff- and quota-free access to each other’s market.

Fishing was one of two major stumbling blocks. Currently, British waters are a common resource for EU fishermen. The EU wanted the UK to largely maintain this status quo while the UK wanted to ensure that “British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats”. The agreement requires EU fishing boats to give up 25 percent of their current quotas over the next five and a half years. After that, there will be annual negotiations on the amount of fish that EU ships can take from British waters.

State aid was the other sticking point. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced legislation in September to break a clause in the EU withdrawal agreement that would have limited his options for subsidising British companies. The EU insisted on a “level playing field” without distortive subsidies in the UK.

The December 24 agreement included the creation of an independent body to oversee any concerns either side has about the other’s use of state aid.

COVID-19 AND A WORLD ON LOCKDOWN

The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 gave rise to the greatest global crisis since World War II, prompting nationwide lockdowns and plunging economies into crisis.

The first cases were discovered in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, as early as November 2019. Most scientists believe the Covid-19 virus emerged from animals in China, probably bats, before jumping to humans. Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang tried to raise the alarm in late December, only to be silenced by local authorities. He died of Covid-19 in February.

Hubei’s nearly 60 million residents went into lockdown in late January. Italy became the first European nation to impose a nationwide lockdown in February as the northern city of Bergamo became a chilling warning of the pandemic’s human toll.

Many Western countries including France, the UK and Spain implemented lockdowns in March. Several US states including New York and California did the same. Stocks crashed – with Wall Street suffering its biggest one-day loss since the 2008 financial crisis on March 9 – until central banks led by the Federal Reserve pumped liquidity into markets later in the month.

In the first three months of 2020, the G20 group’s economies contracted by 3.4 percent year-on-year, according to the OECD. Workers’ incomes fell by an average of 10 percent in the first nine months of 2020, according to the International Labour Organisation, with millions unable to work due to forced shutdowns and many small businesses struggling to survive.

The coronavirus resurged across the Western world after the first confinement measures ended, prompting several nations to impose second lockdowns towards the end of the year.

The WHO has so far registered more than 1.7 million deaths from the virus.

DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD SPARKS GLOBAL PROTESTS

Mass protests in the US against systemic racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd spread across the globe, including to France, which has had its own problems with accusations of racism in policing.

Video images shared on social media showed Floyd, 44, being held down, a policeman's knee on his neck, as he repeatedly pleaded for air. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd’s last words, appeared on protest signs around the world.

Floyd’s death prompted a resurgence of the US Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which first emerged in the United States in 2013 after neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida.

The US saw more than 4,700 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which reached a crescendo on June 6 when half a million people protested at almost 550 locations across the country.

Inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, protesters took to the streets across the world. In June, protesters in the British city of Bristol toppled a statue of 18th-century slave trader Edward Colston while Belgium removed statues of King Leopold II, known for his brutal rule of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, across the country.

Outrage against police also spilled onto the streets of Paris, where Floyd’s death shined a new spotlight on the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man who died in 2016 after being restrained by French police. An autopsy ordered by his family found that he was killed by asphyxiation. But experts overruled that in May, exonerating the three police officers involved. More than 10,000 people demonstrated in “Justice for Adama” rallies in June, with protesters also taking to the streets in Marseille, Lyon and Lille.

In November, four police officers were charged over the beating of Black music producer Michel Zecler in Paris. The attack on Zecler – images of which were first published by news site Loopholder and which involved officers hurling racial epithets – galvanised fresh protests against a draft law that would have limited the right to share images of on-duty police. Critics, who warned the bill would curtail the ability to document police misconduct, eventually won out, with the government eventually abandoning the controversial provision known as Article 24.

CHINA CRACKS DOWN ON HONG KONG

After living in relative peace and harmony since the 1997 handover, 2020 was the year that China tightened the screws on Hong Kong – officially a semi-autonomous special administrative region – with the introduction of a security law that would have allowed for China to extradite Hong Kong citizens. Hong Kong residents rallied en masse and China backed down on extraditions but implemented new restrictions on popular protests. In late June the National People’s Congress in Beijing passed a controversial security law against ambiguously worded offences of separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries.

Critics say the law contravenes Hong Kong’s autonomous status under the 1984 Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China when Hong Kong was still a British colony. Colonial Hong Kong enjoyed a degree of political liberalism including freedom of expression, the rule of law and an impartial justice system.

A number of pro-democracy activists were arrested this year, including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow and media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

“Hong Kong has been put into handcuffs by the Chinese regime”, which “you can’t trust further than you can spit”, said Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

BEIRUT BLAST DEVASTATES LEBANON

On August 4, the accidental detonation of a stockpile of chemicals stored at the Beirut port killed more than 200 people, left another 300,000 instantly homeless and devastated the already struggling Lebanese economy.

Decades of state negligence were blamed for the blast, which was caused by the ignition of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at Beirut port for many years. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab as well as three ex-ministers were charged with criminal neglect.

The explosion happened as Lebanon was already grappling with a financial meltdown including rapid inflation, soaring poverty and mass unemployment.

The international community has been urging Lebanon's leaders to break the political deadlock that has blocked billions of dollars in assistance from the World Bank, the UN and the European Union while Beirut struggles to form a new government. The aid – which includes food and healthcare as well as funds for education and the reconstruction of the port of Beirut – remains contingent on government reforms.

The World Bank said in December that Lebanon’s economy is facing an “arduous and prolonged depression” with real GPD expected to plunge by nearly 20 percent because its leadership has failed to introduce reforms.

BELARUS PROTESTS

The Belarusian opposition mounted an unprecedented challenge in 2020 to President Aleksander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994.

Belarus’s rival candidates were in prison during this year’s August 9 elections. But Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a prominent jailed opposition figure, ran anyway, vowing to release political prisoners and conduct free and fair elections within six months. Lukashenko announced himself the victor with 80 percent of the vote – to widespread incredulity. Tikhanovskaya was detained and forced to read out a statement decrying the protest movement before fleeing to Lithuania.

Since the vote, thousands took to the streets during months of weekend protests. Lukashenko has tried to clamp down with mass arrests, beatings and torture, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the opposition movement remains determined, according to a recent survey by Poland-based sociologists, that found 84 percent of demonstrators are willing to carry on protesting until Lukashenko leaves office.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

The long-disputed, semi-autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh stole global headlines after a long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted into a hot war in September. Azerbaijan, backed by drones from Turkey, launched a military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region on its territory, leaving several thousand dead.

A Russia-brokered peace agreement in November ended the fighting, with Armenia required to withdraw from three areas of the breakaway region along with seven neighbouring areas. In the town of Kalbajar people burned their homes before fleeing ahead of arriving Azerbaijani troops.

But according to Paris-based historian and Eastern Europe specialist Galia Ackerman, all parties involved benefitted from the peace deal expect for Armenia.

“Russia regains its grip on Armenia and gets boots on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Akerman told FRANCE 24. “Turkey strengthens its links with Azerbaijan; and Azerbaijan is delighted because they have recovered territory that separatists had occupied for more than a quarter of a century.”

TEACHER’S KILLING REVIVES DEBATE OVER ISLAMISM IN FRANCE

The death of French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 prompted a new round of soul-searching in France over secularism, integration and freedom of religion. Paty was murdered by a Russian-Chechen Islamist incensed that Paty showed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on civil liberties and freedom of speech.

Paty had shown the controversial images, from satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, to his civics class while emphasising that students could choose not to look at them if they found them offensive.

In response to Paty’s murder, President Emmanuel Macron hailed the slain teacher as a hero and vowed that France would never give up its Enlightenment values – including the right to caricature, the right to blaspheme and the “right to mock”, even to mock religion. France has a long tradition of caricature in which it has often challenged both religious and political authorities. Charlie Hebdo caricatures often lampoon Catholicism as well as other religions.

On October 29, an attacker with a knife killed three people worshipping at a church in Nice, sparking fears that France was seeing a wave of Islamist violence. A Tunisian man who arrived in France the previous month was charged for murder.

Macron announced plans to combat "radical Islamism" on French soil in December. But some critics feared the law would unduly stigmatise the country’s Muslim community, which is Europe's largest.

JOE BIDEN BEATS DONALD TRUMP

It took weeks to become official, but Democratic challenger Joe Biden beat Republican incumbent Donald Trump, who still refuses to concede, in the November 3 US presidential elections.

Two-thirds of eligible voters took part in the election, a turnout not seen in more than a century, with nearly 160 million people casting ballots – up from around 138 million in 2016. Biden garnered 80 million votes, more than any other presidential candidate in history.

Amid Trump’s frequent fraud allegations before and after Election Day, the country was braced for worst-case scenarios that would test the world's most powerful democracy. In the end, Trump lost with 232 electoral college votes to 306 for Biden. Despite a raft of court challenges by Trump's legal team, the Electoral College on December 14 officially confirmed Joe Biden as the nation’s next president.

Biden not only won the crucial “rust belt” states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (states that Democrat Hillary Clinton famously lost in 2016) but he also won the former GOP strongholds of Georgia and Arizona, which had not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1992 and 1996, respectively.

ETHIOPIA’S WAR IN TIGRAY

As the world fixated on results trickling in from the US presidential elections, Ethiopian PM (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Abiy Ahmed on November 4 ordered a military assault against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern breakaway province of Tigray. Tensions between the government and TPLF, which was once part of the governing coalition, had been on the rise in recent months. Tigray held its own elections in September, insisting Abiy’s rule was illegitimate after a national vote was delayed due to the coronavirus.

Federal forces said on November 28 that they had captured Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. Abiy said this meant the conflict was over but the TPLF vowed to continue fighting until the “invaders” leave.

As the conflict raged, tens of thousands fled over the border into Sudan. Meanwhile, resources were running out for 100,000 Eritrean refuges who had been sheltering in camps in Tigray. Ethiopia finally granted access to the UN to deliver aid to the area at the start of December.

The UN has warned a million people have so far been displaced by the conflict and said evidence of war crimes was mounting.

Hundreds of civilians have been reported killed in artillery strikes, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on December 22. A communications blackout has made reports of Eritrean military involvement and mass civilian casualties hard to verify.