As 2020 draws to a close, it has been a more eventful year than most. The COVID-19 pandemic had a radical impact on everything from stock markets and global carbon emissions to social mobility and mental health. From the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, which reported the first coronavirus death on 9th January, the virus spread through close social interactions, and accelerated around the world due to the highly globalised nature of the 21st century economy. By 11th March, the WHO officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
With cases surging in the northern hemisphere, there was concern for the impact the virus could have on the more fragile healthcare systems and economies of developing countries, such as those found in Africa. Misinformation and fake news also made the fight against coronavirus even more pressing as official health guidelines were lost in the noise across the continent.
As a communications agency, we assembled a group of partners to launch the #INFORAFRICA campaign, aimed at responding to the challenges faced by Africa in tackling the pandemic. The campaign engaged opinion leaders, celebrities and influencers to deliver preventive and lifesaving messages across the continent, as well as supporting initiatives that fight the disease, create a positive impact on local communities and contribute to achieving resilience. The ambitious, continent-wide campaign achieved the support of the World Health Organisation, African Union and the Africa CDC to address the spread of misinformation and share vital health messages.
Thankfully, Africa fared better than many other regions of the world, due perhaps to a younger population, experience with epidemic control from tackling other diseases such as HIV and TB, and not least due to a surge of health innovation across the continent which helped to keep the virus at bay.
While the pandemic continues to loom large over our lives in the short and medium-term, here are some other news stories from this year that we may remember 2020 for:
In the early months of the year, marked by the alarming spread of COVID-19 through the US and the beginnings of a deep recession, Joe Biden was confirmed as the Democratic nominee for president. This began an election season like no other, typified by Biden’s virtual campaigns and President Trump’s disastrous COVID-19 press briefings.
With the election now behind us, we now know that Donald Trump will leave the White House. Despite his attempts to overturn the result, through a series of botched court cases and repeated claims of voter fraud, the checks and balances of the American democratic system seem to have worked. As Biden’s victory was decisively confirmed by the Electoral College last week, many key Republican lawmakers and allies have finally turned on Trump, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Despite this, the edifice has been seriously shaken and Trump will likely retain a hold over the party for many years to come.
Looking to the future, Joe Biden will aim to unify a bitterly divided country. During his campaign, he built a coalition ranging from the left-wing of his party to moderate Republicans. In his maiden speech as president-elect, he asked voters to “give each other a chance,” indicating his intention to govern as a unifier. Biden will hope to draw on his wealth of experience in the Senate, as a pluralist and a bipartisan lawmaker, in order to bridge party lines in a potentially gridlocked Senate.
Biden intends to reconnect with the norms of good governance, at home and abroad, in particular by organising a “summit of democracies” in 2021, with a clear objective: counter the rise of authoritarian regimes. But if the United States wants to lead the free world again, Biden must restore the country’s democratic image and reconcile a nation divided and pressing for change, in a world still in disarray.
BLM, diversity and a year of protests
In May, an African-American man named George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, after the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. A video of the incident was captured by a bystander and uploaded to social media, sending shockwaves around the world.
Protests began in Minneapolis and quickly spread through the US, with the outpouring of anger worsened by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities. The slogan “Black Lives Matter,” first popularized as a hashtag after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, became a global rallying cry for racial justice and anti-police brutality. Whilst most of the protests were peaceful, some descended into violence, although this was in part due to the heavy-handed tactics of riot police and the presence of counter-protesters.
As conversations about race took centre-stage, the spotlight was shone on corporations, many of whom were quick to condemn police violence and embrace the cause of racial justice. As businesses around the world renewed their commitments to diversity and ESG targets, many are now expecting to see the end to harmful business partnerships and increased investment into black communities.
Protests in solidarity spread across many of the world’s major cities from Paris to Tokyo. In the UK, protesters highlighted the systematic racism within the Metropolitan police, the Windrush scandal and Britain’s failure to face up to its colonial past. Whilst the Black Lives Matter demonstrations were the most successful in grabbing international attention, they were by no means the only instance of major protests in 2020, a year that will be remembered as one of global revolt.
Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continued from last year, whilst protesters in Belarus have been calling for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko since a rigged election in August. Demonstrators in Poland are also calling for the reversal of a high court ruling to ban abortions. In India, protests began at the start of the year, with riots against the Modi’s government’s anti-Muslim citizenship law, and resurfaced recenty with a general strike against efforts to deregulate the farming sector, thought to be one of the largest protests in recorded history. Whilst 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, we may also reflect on the past year as one that reignited protest movements around the world.
The #EndSARS Protest and Insecurity in Nigeria
One such protest that drew worldwide attention was the #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria. Angry and discontent Nigerian youths took to the streets in October 2020 to demand the police reforms and the abolishment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Originally, SARS was created to protect citizens from criminal activity but has been accused of extrajudicial harassment, torture and extortion, mostly targeting young people between the ages of 18 and 35.
On 20th October, the military allegedly opened fire and began killing peaceful protesters. At least 69 civilians have died since protests began. The response of the federal government has bred an atmosphere of distrust in the effectiveness of the state, the constitution and elected political leaders. The Nigerian government’s denial of escalating the unrest, the threats to lives of citizens, the freezing of bank accounts, and the continuous arrest and detention of people supportive of the #EndSARS movement demonstrates the lack of care and concern for the Nigerian people.
Insecurity has become the order of the day in Nigeria and has worsened since the emergence of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram in 2002. Last week, more than 300 boys were abducted two weeks ago from a secondary school in Kankara, Katsina state. The authorities initially blamed the kidnapping on bandits, but rebels from the Boko Haram group have claimed responsibility via an audio message from their leader Abubakar
Shekau. In the message, Shekau said that the group had launched an attack against ”western education.” Boko Haram has been responsible for kidnappings in the past, one of which is the abduction of the Chibok girls in 2014.
Following a period of negotiations with the kidnappers, the Katsina state government confirmed that on 18th December the 344 boys were released by the militant group and rescued by security forces. However, both this incident and October’s protests shows that the Buhari government has much work to do in 2021 towards improving security in the north and starting police reforms to de-escalate tensions.
Renewed Climate Action in 2021
The year that started with the devastating wildfires in Australia has ended with total investments in renewables finally exceeding investments in fossil fuels. COVID-19 has demanded renewed global solidarity to tackle problems and a sharpened awareness of vulnerabilities, indisputably demonstrating that science must inform sound decision-making. Countries and businesses are now looking for long-term economic and sustainable solutions for market-led decarbonisation efforts.
Although significant reductions in emissions due to the COVID-19 lockdown have been temporary, it did shine a brief light on what can happen through collective action. The massive recovery plans now under consideration and the corresponding policy changes will add powerful stimuli for climate action.
In 2021, we envisage that decision-makers will renew their focus on climate action. The international community will be pleased that President-elect Biden pledged to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement. Furthermore, the EU has resolved to cut emissions by 55% by 2030, based on 1990 levels, whilst China recently announced that it is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060.
This window of opportunity is now wide open, and we foresee 2021 as a crucial turning point for real and sustained climate action. Cancelled international events in 2020 will see more energy and focus this year. Events such as COP26 in Glasgow will be a critical platform for climate action and diplomacy, where countries will submit new long-term climate goals and ambitions ahead of the 2015 Paris Accord.