It was a year like no other. Amid the massive losses inflicted by a global pandemic, bitter political divisions and racial unrest that exploded into violence, glimmers of light shone through the darkness.
Frontline medical workers and those in other essential jobs risked their own safety to help others. Crowds of protesters took to the streets in a widespread outcry over systemic racism and injustice. And, by year's end, tens of millions of Americans cast their votes in a presidential election, mailing in ballots or heading to the polls in larger numbers than ever before in the nation’s history.
COVID-19 Changed the World Forever
On January 9, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that a cluster of mysterious pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 might have been caused by a previously unidentified coronavirus. By the end of that month, cases of the new virus were confirmed in Thailand, Japan and the United States, among other countries, totaling 9,800 total cases and more than 200 deaths.
The respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, got its own official name in mid-February: COVID-19, or CO for corona, VI for virus and D for disease. While a high percentage of those affected suffer mild cold- or flu-like symptoms (or even no symptoms), the disease causes severe illness in others, particularly elderly patients or those with pre-existing medical conditions.
On March 11, with Italy reporting more than 12,000 cases and 800 deaths and cases rising in the United States and elsewhere, the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. President Donald Trump, who initially downplayed the virus threat in the United States, declared a national emergency on March 13, unlocking billions of dollars in federal funding to fight the disease’s spread.
By the end of that month, the United States had overtaken both China and Italy and led the world in the total number of known COVID-19 cases. Schools began closing, and many restaurants and other small businesses were forced to shut their doors for the foreseeable future. Cities and states across the country passed stay-at-home orders, even as frontline medical workers faced crippling shortages of the vital personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to mitigate transmission of the virus.
News of the pandemic’s spread triggered a global recession, and Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in U.S. history. By April some 6.6 million Americans had filed for unemployment. That month, the U.S. unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent, the highest since the Great Depression.
While social distancing, mask-wearing and other measures helped to lower the virus toll in some parts of the country by summer, rising case rates forced Texas, Florida, California and other states to postpone or halt reopening plans. By the fall, several world leaders had contracted COVID-19, including President Trump, who announced in early October that he and the first lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive, along with numerous White House staffers.
Through it all, the death toll mounted: Though Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned in March that the United States could see between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, the actual number by year’s end would reach more than 300,000. Worldwide, more than 1.6 million people died from COVID-19 in 2020, with total confirmed cases topping 70 million.
Hope surfaced in November, when several drugmakers announced they had developed and tested vaccines that were over 90 percent effective. After the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization, the first health care workers received vaccine doses by mid-December. Residents of U.S. nursing homes, who suffered a large share of the deaths from the virus, were also prioritized, while the majority of Americans were not expected to receive the vaccine until spring 2021 or later.
Politics and World Events
A U.S. drone strike killed a major Iranian general: The U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport in early January killed the powerful General Qasem Soleimani, thought to be the second most powerful person in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In response, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq, injuring U.S. service members, and mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger airplane taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard.
Negotiations over Brexit continued: The United Kingdom formally withdrew from the European Union in January, beginning a period of transition as the two sides negotiated the terms of their new relationship. At year’s end, relations remained tense, and negotiations continued in an effort to avoid a no-deal result by December 31, the official end of the transition.
The Senate acquitted President Donald Trump of impeachment charges: Trump became only the third U.S. president in history to have been impeached by the House of Representatives and tried in the Senate, which voted to acquit him in February. The two impeachment charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, stemmed from Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the son of Vice President Joe Biden, then one of a number of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The United States made moves to leave Afghanistan: In February, officials of the Trump administration and leaders of the Muslim fundamentalist group the Taliban reached an agreement marking the first step in ending the more than 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. Under the deal, all U.S. forces will be withdrawn by May 2021, provided the Taliban meets certain conditions, including negotiating peace with the Afghan government. In November, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the withdrawal of 2,500 troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by mid-January 2021, a decision criticized by many at home and abroad due to increasing violence during the ongoing Afghan-Taliban negotiations.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died: News of Ginsburg’s death from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87 devastated many Americans who saw her as a liberal icon and champion of women’s rights. It also sparked a partisan battle over President Trump’s nomination of her successor, Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed despite bitter Democratic opposition just days before the 2020 presidential election.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won a historic election: After emerging from a crowded primary field, Vice President Joe Biden clinched the Democratic nomination and chose Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first African American, first Asian American and third female vice presidential candidate in U.S. history. In November, Biden and Harris defeated the incumbent President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in an election that saw record numbers of people voting early and by mail. Both candidates received more votes than any other U.S. presidential candidate in history, with Trump receiving more than 74 million votes and Biden more than 81 million.
Race and Social Justice
George Floyd’s death sparked global protests: On May 25, George Floyd was arrested by police in Minneapolis for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Video footage showed one of the officers kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he was pinned on the ground, saying over and over that he couldn’t breathe. In the weeks that followed, outrage over Floyd’s murder and support for the Black Lives Matter movement fueled mass protests against systemic racism and police violence in more than 2,000 U.S. cities and 60 countries around the globe. By early June, some 62,000 National Guard troops had been deployed in 30 states, and more than 4,400 people had been arrested in connection with the protests. Later in the summer, protests were renewed in many cities after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, paralyzing him from the waist down, and a grand jury returned no charges against officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, earlier in the year.
Americans reckoned with the nation’s racist history: Amid the widespread protests over racial injustice sparked by Floyd’s death, many white Americans paid new attention to Juneteenth—the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865—as well as the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. This year, Oklahoma schools announced they would finally begin teaching the massacre in schools, after years of leaving it unmentioned. In more evidence of changing attitudes, city officials removed monuments celebrating Confederate leaders in Richmond, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Florida and elsewhere, after many of them became a focus of protests.
Civil rights icon John Lewis died in July: Long before representing Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 30 years, Lewis served on the front lines of the civil rights movement. In March 1965, he led the historic march on Selma, Alabama, calling for Black voting rights in the Jim Crow South, and was badly beaten by state troopers in a televised outbreak of violence that outraged the world. Diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in late 2019, he lived long enough to celebrate the 2020 protests as the kind of “good trouble” that he had made his life’s work.
Culture and Sports
Harry and Meghan said goodbye to royal life: Royal watchers were stunned by the announcement in January that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were stepping down from their position as senior royals. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex later traded Britain for the United States, settling in Southern California with their young son, Archie.
A helicopter crash killed Kobe Bryant and eight others: On January 26 came the shocking news that the NBA star Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven other people, had been killed in a helicopter crash due to foggy conditions in Calabasas, California.
Korean-language film 'Parasite' won a historic Oscar: The Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s film “Parasite” made history on Oscar night, becoming the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. “Parasite,” a dark comedy dealing with class conflict, also took home the awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.
Harvey Weinstein convicted: In February, the former Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein was convicted of a criminal sexual act and rape in the third degree and a criminal sexual act. The guilty verdict, and his later sentencing to 23 years in prison, marked the end of a decades’-long tide of allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein by dozens of women, the revelation of which sparked the global #MeToo movement.
COVID-19 shut down the Summer Olympics and other sporting events: The Summer Olympics, scheduled to take place in Tokyo, Japan, were rescheduled to July-August 2021, forcing thousands of athletes around the world to put their dreams on hold for another year. The grass-court tennis championships at Wimbledon, England, were canceled for the first time since World War II. Though several U.S. pro sports leagues, including the NBA, WNBA and NHL, were able to operate successfully by creating “bubbles” and observing strict quarantine and social distancing measures, others saw many games postponed or canceled as players tested positive for COVID-19.
RIP Chadwick Boseman, Eddie Van Halen, Sean Connery and others: In August came the sad news that the actor Chadwick Boseman, best known for portraying Jackie Robinson in “42” and the titular Marvel superhero in “Black Panther,” had died at age 43 from colon cancer. Among the other notable celebrities who died in 2020 were music greats Little Richard and Eddie Van Halen, screen legends Olivia de Havilland and Sean Connery, “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek and Argentine soccer icon Diego Maradona.
Science and Technology
Brushfires devastated Australia: The year began with news of the devastating brushfires in Australia raging since December 2019. By the time they were put out in February, the fires had burned some 46 million acres of land, killed 34 people and killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals.
Antarctica saw its highest temperature on record: In February, the coldest continent on Earth recorded a record-high temperature of 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists said the high temperature was in keeping with the overall global warming trend in recent years, and could affect parts of the massive Antarctic ice sheet, which contains some 90 percent of the world’s fresh water.
Wildfires burned more than 8.2 million acres in American West: Beginning in mid-August, a series of major wildfires—fueled by gusty winds, drought, heat waves, lightning storms and other markers of a changing climate—spread over many millions of acres of land west of the Rocky Mountains. California and Colorado both saw record-setting fires in terms of acres burned this year. In Oregon, more than 900,000 acres (an area larger than the state of Rhode Island) burned in just 72 hours in September, compared with the state’s 10-year wildfire season average of 500,000 acres.
The United States officially left the Paris Climate Agreement: After a mandatory year-long waiting period, the United States formally exited the landmark accord signed in Paris in 2015. Under the leadership of President Trump, whose administration rolled back many efforts aimed at mitigating climate change, the United States became the only one of nearly 200 countries to renounce its promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Federal and state governments attempted to rein in tech giants: The year saw a series of groundbreaking antitrust lawsuits aimed at powerful Silicon Valley companies that have grown to mammoth proportions over little more than a decade. Most notably, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a long-anticipated lawsuit against Google, owned by Alphabet, Inc., in October, alleging that the company illegally protects its monopoly over online search. In December, Texas and nine other states filed another massive suit attacking Google’s online advertising practices, while dozens of states and the federal government targeted Facebook, accusing the social media behemoth of illegally buying up its competitors to form a monopoly.
SpaceX began a new era of spaceflight: For all those searching for a new planet to call home, the year brought at least a bit of good news. SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk to fulfill his dream of colonizing Mars, launched NASA astronauts into orbit for the first time since the U.S. government retired the space shuttle program in 2011. SpaceX regularly transports cargo to the International Space Station, and in 2020 became the first private enterprise ever to launch astronauts there.
Berkeley Lovelace Jr., “WHO names the new coronavirus COVID-19.” CNBC, February 11, 2020.
Cecilia Smith-Schoenwalder, “WHO Estimates Coronavirus Has Infected 10% of Global Population. U.S. News, October 5, 2020.
“Unemployment rate rises to record high 14.7 percent in April 2020.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 13, 2020.
Philip Ewing, “'Not Guilty': Trump Acquitted On 2 Articles Of Impeachment As Historic Trial Closes.” NPR, February 5, 2020.
“US troops in Afghanistan: Allies and Republicans alarmed at withdrawal plan.” BBC News, November 18, 2020.
Sophie Lewis, “Joe Biden breaks Obama's record for most votes ever cast for a U.S. presidential candidate.” CBS News, December 7, 2020.
Alexandra Sternlicht, “Over 4,400 Arrests, 62,000 National Guard Troops Deployed: George Floyd Protests By The Numbers.” Forbes, June 2, 2020.
Christina Maxouris, “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre will soon be a part of the curriculum for Oklahoma schools.” CNN, February 20, 2020.
Alisha Ebrahimji, Artemis Moshtaghian and Lauren M. Johnson, “Confederate statues are coming down following George Floyd's death. Here's what we know.” CNN, June 9, 2020.
Katharine Q. Seelye, “John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80.” New York Times, July 17, 2020.
Colin Dwyer, “Harvey Weinstein Sentenced To 23 Years In Prison For Rape And Sexual Abuse.” NPR, March 11, 2020.
Kate Baggaley, “The NBA bubble was a one-of-a-kind COVID-19 success story.” Popular Science, October 15, 2020.
Jack Guy, “Nearly three billion animals killed or displaced by Australia's fires.” CNN, July 28, 2020.
Derrick Bryson Taylor, “Antarctica Sets Record High Temperature: 64.9 Degrees.” New York Times, February 8, 2020.
Diana Leonard and Andrew Freedman, “Western wildfires: An ‘unprecedented,’ climate change-fueled event, experts say.” Washington Post, September 11, 2020.
“Record-Setting Fires in Colorado and California.” NASA Earth Observatory, October 16, 2020.
Rebecca Hersher, “U.S. Officially Leaving Paris Climate Agreement.” NPR, November 3, 2020.
Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac, “U.S. and States Say Facebook Illegally Crushed Competition.” New York Times, December 9, 2020.
Bobby Allyn, Shannon Bond and Ryan Lucas, “Google Abuses Its Monopoly Power Over Search, Justice Department Says In Lawsuit.” NPR, October 10, 2020.
Kenneth Chang, “SpaceX Lifts NASA Astronauts to Orbit, Launching New Era of Spaceflight.” New York Times, May 30, 2020.