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It’s been decades since one world event has dominated the news cycle so completely. 2020 will go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic — the lockdowns, economic pain, overflowing hospitals and the gut-punching death toll. It was also the year for an unusual election season, which saw record voting, and several failed attempts by the sitting president to overturn the results.
The year was also a watershed for race relations after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by policemen sparked Black Lives Matter protests that echoed across the globe. We lost more than 1.75 million people globally and more than 330,000 in the U.S. to COVID-19 and also lost icons including Rep. John Lewis, Kobe Bryant and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Here’s a list of some other events that shook the world this year — and our coverage of why they matter.
Trump impeachment trial
After a contentious and highly partisan Senate impeachment trial, President Trump was acquitted in February by Senate Republicans on both impeachment charges brought against him by the Democratic-led House.
Read: “Roads to Election 2020:” Our series on issues that mattered to voters across the nation
The United States demolished several natural disaster records this year, and scientists say climate change was a big factor. By the end of 2020 the U.S. will have had 20 disasters that cost at least $1 billion each. In 2018, California broke records when over 2 million acres burned in that years’ devastating wildfires — until this year, when over 4 million acres burned, double the amount in recorded history. Five of the largest fires in California history have been this year, and four percent of California’s total landmass has burned in 2020, an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut. The devastation the wildfires caused, exacerbated by California’s ongoing 20-year drought, will impact the state’s iconic forests for decades to come.
Record hurricane season
Unprecedented and unforgiving, 2020 saw the most active hurricane season on record in the Atlantic with 30 named storms — and scientists say the climate crisis is in part to blame. The previous record was in 2005, which had 28 storms including the devastating Hurricane Katrina. Five of the storms this year made landfall in Louisiana.
Opioid epidemic & Purdue Pharma trial
Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyCotin, pled guilty to three criminal charges for its role in the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the United States in recent years, including impeding efforts to combat the addiction issues. The ongoing drug overdose crisis has killed over 470,000 Americans in the last two decades.
Michigan Governor Whitmer kidnapping plot
Thirteen men were arrested in October under charges of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. According to an FBI investigation, the men met repeatedly over the summer for combat drills and to spy on Gov. Whitmer’s vacation home; at least six of the men were indicted over allegedly planning to storm the state capital, kidnap the governor, and instigate a civil war over their anger at her coronavirus management policies. Eight of the men arrested face other charges in state courts, including supporting terrorist acts.
Ghislaine Maxwell, Harvey Weinstein court cases
On March 11, 2020, disgraced film industry titan Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual abuse. Sexual abuse allegations against Weinstein gathered momentum in 2017 after a pair of exposès in the New York Times and the New Yorker; the ensuing momentum pushed the #MeToo movement into popular consciousness.
Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested on July 2 for her alleged involvement in Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring of underage girls. It’s not yet decided if she’ll be released on bail.
Hong Kong democracy
China imposed a new, sweeping national security law in Hong Kong in June, and has since begun an aggressive crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous city, which has been roiled with pro-democracy protests since 2019. The crackdown has raised accusations that China is violating their promise for the city to maintain its rights and autonomy after the British ceded control of Hong Kong in 1997. Arrests of protesters and opposition leaders continue, and the pro-democracy opposition party has been edged out.
Armenia & Azerbaijan conflict
Armed conflict broke out on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July this year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. By the end of the month, Turkey was taking part in military exercises in Azerbaijan and the conflict continued to escalate in bursts. In November, both sides agreed to sign a Russian-brokered peace deal–Azerbaijan gets to hold on to several areas it gained in the conflict, Armenia will withdraw troops from those areas, and 2,000 Russian troops will be deployed to keep the peace.
India farmers protest
In what may be the single largest protest in human history, with tractors and tents filled with food and supplies, an army of tens of thousands of farmers, mainly from northern India, have camped out on the outskirts of New Delhi since late November, protesting three farm acts passed by the Narendra Modi-led government. Nearly 60% of India’s economy, which is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, depends on agriculture.
In August, a massive explosion devastated Lebanon’s capital of Beirut after a fire detonated a stockpile of almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates. More than 200 people died and thousands were injured — and the devastation from the blast only worsened already existing homelessness and healthcare crises in the country.
Bushfires in Australia killed dozens of people, destroyed tens of millions of acres of land and took a heavy toll on the continent’s wildlife, especially native koalas. Fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and long droughts, the fires were one of the worst on record — and scientists say climate change made the devastating fire season at least 30 percent more likely.
The bloody conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in northern Ethiopia killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians, unleashing a humanitarian crisis in the already volatile region and threatening its stability.
2020 was a decidedly terrible year for Iran-U.S. relations. In January, the U.S. carried out a drone attack that killed Qassem Soleimani and nine others near the Baghdad airport. General Soleimani had been a popular and active military leader in Iran for decades; Iran retaliated with a missile attack that injured dozen of U.S. troops in Iraq. In December, a top Iranian nuclear scientist was killed near Tehran, and Iran blamed the attack on Israel.
Historic deal in the Middle East
After decades of stalemate, UAE and Bahrain announced an accord with Israel in August for “full normalization of relations” in exchange for Israel suspending annexation of territory in Occupied West Bank.
Sudan followed suit, indicating a broader realignment of relations in the region.
Following nine recent months of tense negotiations, Britain and the European unions finally hammered out a post-Brexit trade deal, averting a chaotic and costly breakup just in the nick of time. The split is finalized on December 31.
Locusts swarm East Africa
East Africa suffered an initial swarm of the destructive insects in February and found itself being ravaged in April by a second wave 20 times larger, directly affecting the already vulnerable and food insecure.
Prince Harry and Meghan split from the Royal Family
In January, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, announced that they had decided to step back as senior members of the British royal family and will become financially independent, and moved to North America.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, working in cooperation with NASA, achieved several firsts in 2020. In May, it became the first private company to launch humans into orbit. In November, SpaceX Dragon brought four more astronauts to the International Space Station, another first for a private company — and a few weeks later, SpaceX sent its biggest ever cargo shipment to the ISS. For space fanatics who want to learn more, Musk also set a record with the number of times he was able to re-use and relaunch Falcon9.
Amidst the doom and gloom of the 2020 news cycle, ‘murder hornets,’ also known as the Asian giant hornet, exploded in the American popular imagination when scientists discovered the first nest in Washington state. Officials and scientists have been working to track and eradicate the hornet, which can devastate entire colonies of endangered honeybees before they spread to the rest of the country.
As COVID-19 spelled doom for the global economy, the U.S. stock market had a volatile year, clocking some of its worst — and best — days in one calendar year. The Dow plummeted in March, dropping by nearly 3,000 points on March 16. The steepest bear market in history was followed by one of the fastest recoveries with the Dow poised to close above 30,000 points as the year ends.
Apple also made history in 2020 by becoming the first publicly traded company in the county to hit the $2 trillion market cap.
‘Parasite,’ a film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, made history in 2020 as the first film in a language other than English to win ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars. Parasite took home four Academy Awards at the award show in February: Best Picture, Directing, International Feature Film and Screenwriting.
‘Schitt’s Creek’ made history at the Emmys this year by picking up all of the seven statuettes in the comedy categories including Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress and Best Comedy — a first for any show.
Molly started at PBS NewsHour weekend as a digital reporting intern. She has worked as a production assistant and associate producer, and is now a weekend Digital Editor/Producer. Trained as a science journalist, she has worked on a variety of beats and topics, covering climate change, international politics, midterm and presidential elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and more.
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