2020 Trends and Themes: Straight Up Not Having a Good Time

The Long Nineteenth Century was a term often attributed to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who argued that the ideas that shaped 19th Century Europe stretched beyond 100 years, and in order to fully understand this period one needed to observe events starting from the French Revolution in 1789 to the beginning of World War I in 1914.

The Covid-19 pandemic was not the only factor that made this year one to forget. In fact, add in all the elements and we can call 2020 the Long Twenty Twenty. Both in terms of Hobsbawm’s thinking—to fully grasp the absurdity of 2020, we might have to look into previous years and wait until the pandemic is over—or just simply that it has been a long year that has made keeping up unbearable.

Case in point the cover photo above, which shows the Oakland Athletics hosting the embattled Houston Astros at Oakland Coliseum amidst a red sky lit by surrounding bushfires in California. As illustrated by this tweet, the scene looks even more apocalyptic with cardboard cutouts of fans now occupying seats, as the pandemic had stopped fans from attending games. It’s until now that you realise that these wildfires, along with several more environmental crises globally, were also 2020 stories.

But no matter how bad a year has been for the world, I’ve always enjoyed reading year-end reviews. In the end they are always a celebration of humanity, of what we have experienced, what we have felt, and hopefully, what we have learned. This is also why this Civilization VI trailer is one of my favourite trailers ever.

During high school, I made timelines recapping major events for school and community projects. But starting this year, I thought it would be more meaningful to make narratives of this year’s most significant themes. Of course, recapping everything would be a lofty task, so I’ve only chosen five stories that were the most impactful.


18 June: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron (right) practice physical distancing as they pose for a photo-op in front of 10 Downing St. (Simon Dawson/Getty Images)

A pandemic marked by bitter intra and interstate disputes

From the get go, communication around the Covid-19 pandemic was problematic and deeply entrenched within political cleavages. China, where the virus first originated, was first accused of covering up initial reporting of infections and underreporting numbers, all while cracking down on whistleblowers. Similar criticism was also directed towards the World Health Organization for seemingly echoing Chinese rhetoric while delaying urgent action.

The global response spun further into disarray with the rhetoric of authoritarian and populist leaders, who have questioned and even denied the severity of Covid-19. US President Donald Trump promoted dangerous and unapproved treatments as he insisted that the virus did no harm at all—claims he carried all the way to a wildly polarising election that he would later lose. He also further alienated his allies by demanding the renaming of Covid-19 to the ‘Wuhan virus.’ Concurrently, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro compared response strategies with useless fearmongering. In more ludicrous cases, the President of Turkmenistan banned all discussions of Covid-19 with the threat of imprisonment.

As the virus spread across the world, global leaders decided on wholly different strategies. The Asia-Pacific nations, most notably New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, were praised for keeping Covid-19 at bay through a mix of assertive communication and policymaking. Meanwhile, as infections soared in the liberal democracies of North America and Europe, governments floundered as they struggled to find balance between autonomy and stringency. Countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom experimented with keeping societies as open as possible, only to reverse course when case numbers kept soaring. As attempts to curb infections spiraled out of control in the west, scholarly voices have even questioned if liberal democracies were not ready to respond to pandemics.

At local levels, public health officials attempted to uphold public safety with guidelines of mask-wearing and physical distancing, only to find out that their jurisdictions were as uncooperative as the international community. While many were quick to adopt new protocols, protests to end lockdowns and mask-wearing in the name of personal liberty took place across the world. Many on social media have embraced shaming those who did not adhere to public health guidelines, while health and communications experts have argued that shaming only worsened the problem.

The lack of unity in the world’s top levels of health governance, the disagreements between national leaders on response strategies, as well as the opposition to public health protocols signified the politicised nature of the pandemic. And as the race for countries to vaccinate their populations has only just begun, along with the inevitable pushback against vaccination, it is unlikely that this trend will end.

1 October: A man investigates an unexploded rocket shell in the Ivanyan Community of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Hayk Baghdasaryan/AFP)

Across the globe, increased tensions revive age-old feuds

On 27 September, Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive against the disputed, Armenian-occupied region of Nagorno-Karabakh, escalating a decades-long conflict. With the aid of Turkish drones, the Azerbaijani campaign was decisive and Armenia surrendered. Russia and Turkey brokered the peace deal, and the conflict was considered another victory for the interventionist foreign policies of both countries, which previously has already extended its spheres of influence in current Syrian and Libyan civil wars. However, despite the ceasefire, relations between the two nations remain hostile and fighting may still resurface any time.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh was just one example of the historical tensions that broke out in 2020. Within long-disputed regions of the Sino-Indian border, skirmishes between the Chinese and Indian armies flared up again in May. In the aftermath, both sides have increased their military presence, while India responded with a boycott of Chinese apps. As the arms race at the border builds up, the possibility for another outbreak of violence remains high. In Ethiopia, an insurrection in the northern region of Tigray, along with the responding military action by the federal government, has escalated to full-scale war. The conflict has extensive roots in the country’s numerous unresolved ethnic tensions, as well as hostile relations between the local Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—a historically powerful ethnic political party—and their opposition to current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had recently excluded the TPLF from his newly formed Prosperity Party. With no end to the conflict in sight, reports of war crimes and increased ethnic profiling elsewhere in the country have emerged, while over 50,000 have already been displaced to neighbouring Sudan.

2020 has also produced possible moments of war with implications on a global scale. Off the coasts of the Taiwan Strait, tensions are at an all-time high between Taiwan and Mainland China, as fears of a Chinese invasion increase by the day. Fresh off winning another term in the election this January, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has boldly proclaimed Taiwan’s national identity, which has been further bolstered by coverage over her country’s pristine response to Covid-19 as well as international solidarity over Taiwan’s underrepresented status in the world. Tsai’s rhetoric, along with Taiwan’s increased popularity has drawn the ire of Beijing. With the US just emerging from another divisive election, Taiwan is left wondering if its ally will come to its defence if war does break out, all but ensuring that the world is headed into 2021 in an even messier state of geopolitical affairs.

28 May: A protestor carries a US flag upside down—a symbol of distress, as a store burns in the background in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. (Julio Cortez/AP)

A flashpoint in the fight for equality and justice

Within a span of days over the final week of May, the United States was left reeling over the news of two separate killings of unarmed Black Americans, as each reported killing became a bigger catalyst than the previous. The third story of George Floyd’s death under police custody set the nation off. Despite being the worst-hit nation on Earth by Covid-19, Americans took to the streets again, weighed down by centuries of trauma from systemic racism. As protests spanned across the nation, President Trump further fanned the flames of social division, suggesting that the military should forcefully disperse the protests.

But while domestic leaders failed to de-escalate the situation, the rest of the world responded in support. Similar demonstrations began in Canada with a focus on indigenous rights. As the same protests surfaced in Europe, a Berlin U-Bahn station was renamed due to the colonial implications of its original name, protests against police brutality intensified in France, while activists renewed conversations on the continued tradition of ‘Black Pete’ in the Netherlands.

Just like the events that spurred the massive protests across the United States, a three-year protest effort to dissolve the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)—the special branch of the police notorious for its brutality— reinvigorated in Nigeria when a series of reports of police violence surfaced on the Internet. The widespread protests led to the prompt dissolution of the unit, but has continued with the goal of demanding fairer and more equitable forms of governance.

Outside of the fight for racial justice and police brutality, protests demanding other forms of justice rocked the world as well. In Poland, a four-year fight for women’s rights hit a tremendous setback in October, when the nation’s stacked constitutional court banned nearly all forms of abortion. Strikes across every Polish city soon swept the country and forced the government to suspend the ban. In Chile, worsening conditions of working-class people in one of the most unequal societies in the world, combined with the dismissive attitude of the government, became the culminating factor for anti-inequality protests across the country. Protests of the same scale also occurred in India, where a majority of farmers from Punjab, Rajasthan, and Haryana—known as the ‘Rice Bowl of India’—marched to Delhi and blockaded highways to defy a newly introduced Farmer’s Bill that favoured corporations over independent farmers.

Other protests challenged the government head on this year. Examples include the ongoing youth movements in Thailand, where pro-democracy activists opposed the sitting government’s questionable elections, corruption, and pandemic response in a coordinated effort that has attracted solidarity in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well. In Belarus, democracy movements confronted the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who had been in office for 26 years. After another election of dubious legitimacy with opposition leaders arrested, protests have continued to this day. Most of the mentioned protests continue to this day, encapsulating the determination of people across the world even in the face of a major pandemic.

21 April: Washington State resident Christine Taylor talks to her mother Marika Markovic, a resident of British Columbia, on the Canada-US border. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Drastic household and workplace changes introduce new challenges

As the pandemic brought scores of people worldwide home from work and school, many found themselves having enough free time to take a new hobby or skill. The popular language-learning app Duolingo saw a spike in users during lockdowns, while the music industry reported increased sales in instruments and signups for lessons.

For unaffected households, lockdowns may have been a moment of opportunity with issues as minor as more vivid dreams. But for many, it has only made their personal situations more dire. For victims of domestic abuse, lockdowns meant spending most of their time with their abusers in a time where assistance was also limited. More divorces have also been recorded, further threatening the unity of households. And this is still not counting the millions who have lost their jobs as businesses folded from the pandemic, as well as the seniors who struggle with isolation.

While 2020 became quite the year for consumer electronics with the release of next-generation consoles and the launch of ARM-based MacBooks—one of the most exciting developments in the computing world, technology did much more to harm than entertain us. Our increasingly digital lifestyles has been marred by disinformation across social media, constant doomscrolling, and most prominently, increased screen time from working at home.

During working hours, students and employees have felt disconnected in their work and suffered from Zoom fatigue, while instructors struggled to use essential tools for a digital environment. Combined with factors such as decreased exercise and more screen time, mental health issues have skyrocketed. Now that the WHO has predicted that Covid-19 will become endemic, these challenges will continue to be hot topics as schools and workplaces debate the future of digital workspaces.

20 April: As businesses closed down on Granville Street in Vancouver, BC, artists took the initiative to cover boarded-up establishments with art. This mural by Will Phillips honours healthcare workers and their messaging during the pandemic. (Eugene McCann, CC BY)

Amid unrest and uncertainty, a constant search for warmth and comfort

It is no question that Covid-19 has shaped popular culture immensely and will for years to come. Masks have become a fashion statement, refraining from physical contact may eventually become common social practice, and finally, Hollywood has even begun capitalising on the pandemic. But as people scramble for methods to stay physically safe, they have also searched for ways to feel safe through prolonged periods of isolation.

With everyone confined to their homes most the time, people have taken greater satisfaction in DIY projects, steadily improving their homes to fit the visual and functionality that they have always wanted. At the same time, they consumed media that made them feel warm and cozy, bringing cottagecore—an aesthetic of pastoral life that romanticises quarantine—to the mainstream. Examples have included video games such as Animal Crossing due to its carefree, countryside setting, as well as the surprise release of Taylor Swift albums in Folklore and Evermore, where she has largely changed her direction to fit an unplugged, indie sound. Similarly, the 1983 Mandpop song “Yi Jian Mei” by Taiwanese singer Fei Yu-ching began making the rounds on TikTok worldwide this year, where many listeners seemed to resonate with sheltering from the winter outside as described by its lyrics, even if they did not understand them. And with the northern hemisphere currently wintering as well, many have also pointed towards Scandinavian ideas of staying warm and optimistic in a pandemic winter.

Escapism and nostalgia have also dominated cultural circles this year, as the most-watched TV shows were heavily centered on the degree they took viewers away from current events, while radios grew popular by playing old tunes. The world enters 2021 with no signs of pandemic protocols easing, and content focused on hearthly warmth and better times will continue to thrive. And as the virtualisation of our daily lives continues with more advances in virtual and augmented realities, our fascination with escapism will only grow.


Above Featured Photo: The Oakland Athletics play a home game against the Houston Astros at Oakland Coliseum on 9 September 2020, under a red sky lit by forest fires and in front of seats filled with cardboard cutouts of fans. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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