2020 in Review: A Fluke Year or Simply a New Reality?

Anna Geldert, Managing Editor, Commentary

It’s safe to say that everyone felt a weight lifted off their shoulders when the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 2020. For many, this moment marked the end of one of the most tumultuous years of their lives, not to mention in modern history. The prospect of a brighter future on the horizon in 2021 was certainly something to look forward to.

Right from the start, 2020 was a rotten year. In January alone, wildfires raged in Australia, Donald Trump was impeached for the first time and rumors about WWIII with Iran flooded the news. By March, the coronavirus triggered a worldwide health crisis that sent countries around the globe into months of quarantine and severe economic recession. In May, tensions increased as the murder of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests highlighted centuries of systemic racism throughout the United States. Summer and fall saw an uptick in natural disasters, including record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast and one of the worst hurricane seasons to date. The year finally ended in a flurry of election drama and a rapidly rising Covid-19 death toll as families continued to travel over the holidays.

All of this and more happened in the longest 12 months anyone has ever experienced. If anyone has since forgotten about some of these events, they’re not alone—in the midst of this ever-evolving apocalypse, most people were already preoccupied as they learned to adjust to the new normal of social distancing and online school or work, and it was hard to keep up with everything else.  Without even knowing it, the world was launched into a year that is sure to be the central topic of history books in the decades to come.

“I remember last year, [my teacher]  Ms. Duncan pointed out that the pandemic and the racial justice protests were probably some of the first major events our generation has lived through,” said Miki Lee, ‘21. “I thought that was really interesting because while everything was escalating, I didn’t even realize what we were living through. It was surprising how it didn’t automatically register.” 

As momentous as 2020 may feel at the moment, it may not be as historic as we believe it to be. From climate crises to social and political division, the roots of many of the catastrophic events of the past year have been building up for decades and only continue to increase.  In other words, was 2020 some kind of freak accident, a stroke of bad luck or a cruel twist of fate that wound all of our worst nightmares into one impossible year? Or was it simply the beginning of what is quickly becoming a new reality?

Nolan Trinh, ‘21, said he is optimistic about what 2021 will hold: “I’m hoping that the virus will die down [this] year since this year it’s impossible to do normal senior things like prom, graduation, club activities like debate tournaments and speech tournaments and many more things. Next year I’m hoping for a normal college life where I take classes on campus and live in a dorm.”

Like Trihn, most are looking forward to the day when we can be reunited with our friends and family and go about our day without worrying about forgetting their masks and washing their hands every five minutes. The idea of having to repeat 2020 over and over again sounds like something out of a horror movie. Yet people have been fantasizing about a return to “normal” for nearly 11 months, and the end is still nowhere in sight. 

In terms of an escape from natural disasters and climate crises, the future is not looking too bright. Take the California wildfires, for instance. The 2020 fires shattered records on every account, sure, but so did fires in 2018 and other recent years. 

In fact, even more worrying are the statistics from the first month of 2021—according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the state has already had 297 wildfires in January alone, which burned over 1,000 acres of land. These statistics are even more staggering when compared with the numbers from January of last year, in which there were only 97 fires with 22 acres burned. If the trends from the first month of 2021 continue, we may be in for a fire season even worse than last year.

In many ways, this is hardly surprising. Climate change experts have been predicting an increase in natural disasters due to rising temperatures for decades. In an interview with the New York Times, bioclimatology professor Park Williams from Columbia University described how, as earth’s temperature increases, it can dry out forests, causing them to be more prone to wildfires. 

“This climate-change connection [to fires] is straightforward,” Williams said. “Warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.” 

The same can be said for other forms of natural disasters as well. According to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University, hurricanes and tropical storms are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity due to rising sea levels from melting ice caps.

 Similarly, a report by Climate.gov found that the 9 of the 10 warmest years ever recorded occurred in the past 15 years. Unless we drastically reduce carbon emissions very soon, it seems possible that every year could hold the same natural disasters as 2020 did, or worse. 

Perhaps the most significant event that set 2020 apart from other years was the Covid-19 pandemic. While diseases have been afflicting communities around the world for centuries, never before has a virus spread so quickly and so far. Countries around the world were unprepared for the lockdowns that ensued, and many, including the United States, seemed at a loss as to how to slow the spread efficiently and effectively. Yet many scientists have been predicting a pandemic such as this one for years.


In a TED Talk in 2015, Bill Gates warned of an infectious disease that could spread around the world and kill millions of people. He argued that while many countries have military reserves that are trained to fight in an unexpected war, none have a similarly prepared virus response team. In an eerily accurate illustration of the events of five years later, he predicted that governments would be ill-equipped to deal with pandemic until it was already out of control.


“If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades,” he said, “it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Now, part of the reason for this is that we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents. But we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”


In many ways, Gates’s foresight is logical. The global community is more connected than ever, and, with constant travel between countries, it would be easy to spread a viral infection across borders. In fact, the world has actually been lucky with previous epidemics, such as Ebola, HIV, and Influenza A, because these viruses are either not spread through the air or are not as contagious as the coronavirus.


Finally, the last series of events that seemed to startle people throughout 2020 were those inspired by political and social tensions. Throughout the summer, police brutality against black Americans sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, including many in our own community in the Twin Cities. Some of these protests, especially in Minneapolis, turned violent as people looted and burned property around the city. Likewise, response from authorities was equally harmful—many of us still remember all too well the moment when former President Trump ordered the tear-gassing of a crowd of protestors outside the White House so that he could cross the street and take a photo in front of a church. 


Political tension did not stop with the protests, however. In November, the country was divided once again as controversy over mail-in ballots and election fraud made Americans question whether ballots would be received securely by Election Day. Even when Biden’s victory was announced, many conservative party members still remained suspicious of foul play. 


“Every election cycle in the US always had major political problems,” said Trihn. 

When November 3rd rolled around, Trihn was hardly surprised by the turmoil. 


“I think the Covid-19 pandemic and the exponential hate during this time led to a surge of political polarization within the country.” 


In many ways, Trihn has a point. Though these tensions appeared to reach a climax in 2020, many of them have been on the rise for years. With every election, the fight for legislative power has intensified. Twice in the last 20 years, the presidential election has been so close that the electoral vote did not match the popular vote. This year, many states remained “too close to call” until days after November 3rd, with a few launching into recounts to ensure that ballots were not missed. America has never been more divided, and it is unlikely that political drama 2020 is gone. Most notably, the raid on the US Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6th of this year made it abundantly clear that political unrest did not disappear with the change of the calendar year. If anything, this attack was a symbol that the worst may be still to come. 


Problems from climate change, to pandemics, to political unrest aren’t going anywhere, yet in some ways, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Human societies have been finding solutions to unprecedented challenges for thousands of years, and if there’s anything 2020 has taught the world, it’s that humans are just as persistent today. Over the course of the past year, society has managed to navigate online school and work, create a vaccine faster than ever before, and adjusted to new ways of staying connected with friends and family. Human innovation isn’t going anywhere either. 


When asked about her hopes for the new year, Ella Van Engen, ‘21, nailed it when she shared that her thoughts on using our experiences from 2020 to move forward.


“I’m definitely hoping 2021 will be a better year, as I think we all are,” she said. “I sincerely hope that the things that happened in 2020 are not a new normal for our world, and I hope that we all can begin to collectively heal from the incredibly messed up year we endured.”