Abby Wallace, Feature’s Editor
2020 in review: Thinking about a year we want to forget
2020 was the year everything was put on hold.
New adjustments and distance from family and friends soon became the new norm, and everyday life plummeted in and out of varying degrees of restrictions. If the mantra to live by in 2020 was to ‘stay home’, it could often be hard to imagine a world beyond our own bubble, similarly ravaged by the same concerns yet continually shifting in new, sometimes dangerous and strangely progressive directions.
At the start of the year, it was far from my imagination that we would be closing it with perhaps the toughest set of restrictions since the peak of the virus in April. This only speaks for the severity of the virus and often, the lack of adequate measures to deal with it from the outset. The decision to open up and a renewed focus on boosting the economy after so many months of lockdown in the summer soon appeared misjudged as Northern Ireland saw a rampant rise in cases and entered a new spat of lockdowns in the Autumn. Now, with a new strain of the virus which is 70% more transmissible, a brief period of festivities and a rising number of cases which has now hit over 60,000, Northern Ireland faces a 6-week lockdown, and is entering 2021 in a way that proves the virus cannot be resigned to a year that is cast away when the clock strikes midnight.
However, it was also far from my imagination that vaccinations would be trialled, approved and rolled out in under a year. The speed at which this has occurred has inevitably fuelled concern over the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. A recent poll by YouGov found that 1/5 people in the UK would be unlikely to trust or take the Pfizer vaccine after it was approved last month.
The accelerated timetable does not undermine the safety of the vaccine itself, but rather reflects an accelerated effort for global co-operation on vaccine research, development and distribution. The Coronavirus Global Response initiative launched in May, for example, was the European Commission’s response to calls from the World Health Organisation for global action and has so far raised €15.9 billion for universal access to tests and vaccines. An emergency situation elicited an emergency response, and co-operation between pharmaceutical powerhouses, academic institutions and governmental agencies attempted to procure a global solution to a global issue.
It wasn’t just in health which we saw global solidarity. When George Floyd was killed under the knee of a uniformed, white, police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, protests around the world reflected global outrage at a systemic issue; of police brutality, lack of accountability, and institutionalised inequality of which this was only the latest instalment. Covid restrictions rightfully gave way to calls for social justice, with more than 7700 demonstrations taking place across over 2000 locations throughout the summer in the United States alone.
The Black Lives Matter movement garnered support across multiple platforms, evident as much in the signage of campaigners as it was across social media. Perhaps one benefit of the growing online culture was that for the first time, we were forced not to look away.
Part of recognising racism as a systemic issue means acknowledging the same structures of inequality have been embedded in everyday life long before 2020 and the same resources to educate ourselves available long before this year gave the impetus. If we are to outlaw 2020 as a year to be forgotten, we should at least remember the lessons we have learned this year, bearing in mind they only scratch the surface. We still have a long way to go.
While 2020 saw adjustments to new norms of behaviour while also carving out space for mass social movements, political formalities continued as normal, yet with necessary and deserving changes which mark 2020 as decisive. New Zealand elected its most diverse and inclusive parliament yet, with more than half of the biggest party, the Labour party, made up of women. 10% of the 120-seat chamber also includes members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The United States elected a new President. At the discretion of a population divided not solely upon party, but on racial lines and with record number of 150 million turning out to vote, the first woman of colour was elected to hold the second highest office in the country. Richie Torres and Mondaire Jones are also set to become the first openly gay black members of Congress. After a flurry of failed lawsuits, the Biden administration has pledged itself to restoring unity over division and has prioritised Covid relief projects when set to take over in just over three weeks.
As 2020 has shown, the need for relief extends beyond that of healthcare. Intensifying climate danger evident in a disastrous spat of wildfires in Australia, the U.S. West Coast and South America risks being dangerously overlooked. The World Meteorological Organisation has placed 2020 in the top three hottest years on record, along with 2016 and 2019.
It could be predicted already that 2021 might be defined by recovery and rebuilding. We have already seen this echoed by political figures around the world. President-Elect Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have both promised to ‘build back better.’ After five days of negotiations, EU leaders agreed on a €750bn recovery plan in July. The New Zealand government pledged $50bn to a Covid recovery fund. Plans for economic recovery, borrowing and spending in the EU package is tied up with a commitment to climate action, however the true extent to which recovery will be green across the globe remains to be seen.
An article on 2020 would be incomplete without the ‘B’ word. One unexpected consequence of 2020 was perhaps that Brexit was often ousted from the headlines, and negotiations were put on hold as Covid emergency response took priority.
However, Brexit did not disappear, nor did it simply ‘re-emerge’ as negotiations moved online after the UK’s withdrawal on January 31st. Rather, talks were always going to continue as the withdrawal agreement that was settled last year on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was supplanted by negotiations on the much broader issue of future relationships and trade. A deal, however, well it will work has been done. As far as the current arrangement is concerned, Northern Ireland can remain sure of unfettered access to both the UK and EU market and continuation of the Common Travel Area.
Recently, the Irish government has also assured students in Northern Ireland that they will continue to receive funding to participate in the Erasmus programme, after the UK government adversely opted out of the scheme under the new deal.
Keeping the conversation close to home, after being swept up in international dispute over its centrality in the UK’s Internal Market Bill in September, posing as the recurring sticking point in Brexit negotiations and contending locally with a growing wave of Covid related illnesses, 2020 was also the year that Northern Ireland finally caught up. Same-sex marriage was legalised in January and new abortion laws came into being in March after being decriminalised last October, indicating a step forward for women’s reproductive health in Northern Ireland.
Most recently, last week, Education Minister Peter Weir introduced a bill to make free period products widely accessible in schools across NI, the only part of the UK without any nationwide scheme. 2020 undoubtedly saw a surge in period poverty and though Northern Ireland has a long way to go to catch up with Scotland which has recently voted in favour of free period products to anyone who needs them, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Though for many of us, 2020 consisted of zoom quizzes and keeping ourselves entertained, it has more worth being remembered than many years in my own lifetime, even if these memories are not all fond ones. It was the year we lost several greats; Kobe Bryant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diego Maradona, to name a few.
The year the world went into lockdown and everyday life stood still was the same year the world woke up to systemic inequality and pushed forward the process of acknowledgement and education. 2020 is only a steppingstone in this long and necessary process.
It was the same year the United States voted in a historic election, researchers and scientists co-operated to push the boundaries of rigorous healthcare and Northern Ireland caught up with the rest of the UK in terms of our own civil liberties. If this week, you decide you want to forget about 2020, ask yourself what part of it that is, hopefully not all of it.