In what I am trying to turn into a tradition, I usually take time at the end of the year to talk up the positives of the preceding 12 months. In 2017, I trumpeted the routing of Islamic State, a drop in measles deaths, and the spread of marriage equality. In 2018, I celebrated the expansion of healthcare in India, advances for cannabis decriminalisation around the world, and a record-smashing day for the England cricket team.
In 2019, I didn’t have to explain why everyone should be feeling upbeat; Jeremy Corbyn had just gone down to a hilarious landslide defeat. One of these days, I’ll stop watching videos of that exit poll coming in and laughing myself into bronchial impairment, but not today.
Dashing Swedish historian Johan Norberg — imagine PewDiePie if he’d never discovered Minecraft — has somewhat stolen my thunder this year. However, not to be outdone, I offer my own defence of 2020, with a list of 20 positive developments seen this year.
1) Brexit got done
The UK finally reached a free trade agreement with the EU, marking the end of the Brexit angst and the beginning of a new, no doubt equally angsty, relationship with Brussels. Even whiny Remainers like me have to admit that Boris pulled off quite the coup, securing a deal on terms so preferential that you have to wonder if David Frost has photographs of Ursula von der Leyen frolicking around Brussels hugging strangers without a mask.
2) The UK got a vaccine… or two
The UK became the first country to administer the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and greenlit its own Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be rolled out starting next week. After nine months of intermittent lockdowns and almost 73,000 deaths linked to Covid-19, the end of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be in sight.
3) Peace came upon us
In a series of diplomatic triumphs, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and Bhutan agreed to normalise relations with Israel, while Kosovo and Serbia both recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. In just a few months, decades of received wisdom was turned on its head, as Israel found itself embraced across the region despite the absence of a Palestinian state. Plus, John Kerry was made to look the absolute chump that he is.
After doing his damnest to destroy its soul, Jeremy Corbyn stood down as leader of the Labour Party. Sir Keir Starmer is busily engaged in mopping up the mess Grampa Wacky left behind, even though it might prove an impossible task in the long run. Still, Corbyn was kept out of Downing Street, sent back to his allotment, and the good guys won in the end. Proper happy ending stuff.
5) The EHRC report
After five years of being both mistreated and accused of fabricating their mistreatment, Jews fighting back against Labour antisemitism were vindicated by the EHRC report. The human rights watchdog found Labour culpable for ‘unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination’ against Jews and issued it with a list of recommendations which the party must implement. The body set up by the last Labour government to enforce its equalities legislation didn’t have to look very far to find a party breaching said laws. Even those who might struggle with English irony will be able to appreciate that outcome.
6) Liz Truss became a radfem pin-up
The equalities minister turned into an unlikely heroine for radical feminists after she called a halt to the Tories’ odd love-in with hardline trans activists. Until Truss put her foot down, the government was on course to legislate to remove medical experts from the gender recognition process. You might wonder how the Conservative party came to embrace one of the fringier ideas from the university campuses in the first place, but that’s another matter.
7) Ebola epidemic ended
The worst ebola outbreak in the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo came to an end after two years and more than 2,000 deaths. Congolese medics eventually triumphed over the virus thanks to an unprecedented inoculation programme that saw more than 320,000 people given two new vaccines.
8) A new home for Hong Kongers
As China continued to grind its jackboot down on Hong Kong, most flagrantly with its authoritarian national security law, the UK made a resettlement offer to residents of the special administrative region. In all, just under three million people would be eligible for the visa scheme, which would give refuge to a people with historic ties to Britain and — conveniently enough — lure some of the best and brightest talent to the UK.
9) Bombs away
Four decades on from the Argie bargie that saw the UK reassert its place in the world, the last of the mines have been cleared from the Falkland Islands. When Argentina’s fascist junta invaded the British territory, they pocked the archipelago with 13,000 explosives, rendering parts of the Falklands, including the beaches, off-limits long after General Galtieri’s forces were defeated.
10) Wild polio banished from Africa
In August, Africa was declared free of wild poliovirus after more than two decades of eradication programmes. Dr Ndoutabe Modjirom from the World Health Organisation told The Lancet that the landmark had been achieved by vaccinating 220 million children several times annually, a feat made possible thanks to an army of volunteers two million strong.
11) Behold, it folds
The biological puzzle of protein folding, which has long baffled scientists, was solved by artificial intelligence. Google’s DeepMind unravelled the mystery by analysing graphicised protein shapes against an international biomolecule database. The discovery could speed up the search for cures for cancer and dementia.
12) The greener side of grass
In a move that could aid progress towards decriminalisation worldwide, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV, its designation for the most dangerous illicit substances. The CND still rates weed as harmful but now recognises its medicinal benefits, which is expected to spur more research on cannabis’s clinical uses.
13) More governments got out of our bedrooms
Same-sex marriage became legal in Northern Ireland, Costa Rica, Sark, and the Mexican states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, while civil partnerships were introduced in Montenegro, homosexuality decriminalised in Gabon, and corporal and capital punishment for same-sex activities abolished in Sudan.
14) Brussels to cause less gas
The European Commission agreed earlier this month to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent over the next ten years, instead of the 40 per cent previously settled on. The new target moved European Council president Charles Michel to declare Europe ‘the leader in the fight against climate change’.
15) Even Greater Barrier Reef
Scientists mapping the Australian natural wonder discovered a previously uncharted, independent ‘skyscraper’ reef taller than the Empire State Building. Scientists said the 1,640ft underwater structure, the first discovery of its kind in over a century, could be home to as-yet undocumented species of marine life.
16) Don’t need a ticket to ride
Luxembourg showed what climate-conscious government can do when it puts its mind to it. The grand duchy abolished charges and tickets on all public transport, allowing citizens to use trains, trams and buses when they want and at no cost. The aim is to get more motorists out of their cars and reap the benefits in reduced pollution and emissions.
17) India emerges as a green powerhouse
Earlier this month, prime minister Narendra Modi officially opened construction on a renewable energy park the size of Singapore. The project, located in the Kutch region, will instal 180,000 acres of solar panels and windmills, Agence France-Presse reported. Modi claimed the park would generate 30 gigawatts of energy and help India cut emissions by 50 million tonnes annually.
18) Saudi softens on sharia
In a landmark moment for human rights in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia announced the end of the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes prior to their 18th birthday. The legal change is part of a wider modernisation programme and although progress has been slow in a country lusty in its resort to the executioner’s sword, it is nonetheless encouraging news.
19) The end of malaria could be nigh
An under-reported but potentially game-changing development in 2020 was Microsporidia MB. Not a new phone or tablet, but a microbe that may render mosquitos immune to malaria. The discovery, made by a team of Kenyan and British scientists, could change the terms of the fight against malaria, which takes 400,000 lives every year and mostly kills children under five.
20) Men are on Mars, women are on the Moon
Nasa’s Perseverance Rover launched from Cape Canaveral in July as part of a plan to put a woman on the Moon and thereafter men and women on Mars. Perseverance, scheduled to land at Jezero Crater in mid-February 2021, is carrying the first ever spacesuit materials taken to the Red Planet, where they will be tested against the local atmosphere for use in a future (wo)manned mission to Mars.
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