2020: a year for the history books, in visuals

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The pandemic and other calamities endured in the past 12 months underscore the need to rebuild in more sustainable ways.
  • The World Economic Forum has compiled a visual recap of what’s been a historically difficult year.

Some years truly distinguish themselves.

The competition for most catastrophic annus horribilis on record is stiff. There was 536, with its mysterious fog that plunged much of the world into darkness, 1349’s Black Death, and the pandemic year and frequent point of current reference 1918. Then, there’s 2020.

With its mix of naturally occurring and man-made horrors, 2020 is likely to register in history books for the wrong reasons.

Still, for the optimists, what’s been a trying period may also serve as a springboard to a meaningful rebuild – as we collectively assess what went wrong during the global response to COVID-19, and the many weaknesses the pandemic exploited.

The World Economic Forum has compiled a visual recap of 2020, based on data underlying some of its most prominent storylines.

So, where do we start? How about with a warning.

The year began with the Economist Intelligence Unit publishing its Democracy Index in January. The annual survey rating the state of democracy in 167 countries registered its worst average global score since it first appeared in 2006.

Below, we see those countries rated as “Full Democracies” in the index over the years shaded a dark blue, while those one rung below rated “Flawed Democracies” are light blue, “Hybrid Regimes” are peach, and “Authoritarian Regimes” are red.

Image: World Economic Forum

The first part of the year also saw unusually intense bushfires in Australia, particularly in the southeast, aggravated by record temperatures and severe drought attributed to climate change. Bushfire season is an annual occurrence in Australia, but it’s been more severe lately. As parts of the country recently experienced the hottest November day on record, yet another season was underway.

Below, we see a representation of bushfires in Australia throughout the year by location.

Data from NASA-FIRMS MODIS Collection 6 (Terra). US date format. Due to the rendering and duration of each dot’s glow at this zoom level, the size of corresponding fires appears exaggerated.
Data from NASA-FIRMS MODIS Collection 6 (Terra). US date format. Due to rendering and duration of each dot’s glow at this zoom level, size of corresponding fires appears exaggerated. Image: World Economic Forum

Another development in January: word began spreading of a strange new coronavirus detected in China. Soon, what came to be known as COVID-19 was devastating the city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province.

China’s ground zero was placed under what was described as the largest quarantine in human history by early February. Below, we see an initial spread of confirmed cases within Hubei and into other provinces, which is then largely suppressed.

Data from National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, China CDC, & Chinese Provincial Health Commissions. US date format.
Data from National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, China CDC, & Chinese Provincial Health Commissions. US date format. Image: World Economic Forum

While China’s aggressive lockdown effort was starting to have a tangible local impact by March, the disease had already begun its global spread.

Below, we see the proliferation of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world throughout the year. As 2020 drew to a close China had largely restarted its economy, Europe was enduring a second wave, the US was registering record daily deaths, and India was reporting more cases than any country besides the US – as the first doses of vaccines were being distributed.

Data from WHO WPRO, WHO SEARO, WHO AMRO, WHO EMRO, WHO EURO, WHO AFRO. US date format.
Data from WHO WPRO, WHO SEARO, WHO AMRO, WHO EMRO, WHO EURO, WHO AFRO. US date format. Image: World Economic Forum

Studies have suggested that the relative success or failure of many places to curb the spread of the disease has hinged on the implementation of – and adherence to – mobility restrictions, or “lockdowns.”

Below, we see the increasing stringency of these restrictions in various countries during the early part of the year reflected in a darkening red – which then lightens as the restrictions ease, before (in many places) darkening yet again.

Data from Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. US date format.
Data from Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. US date format. Image: World Economic Forum

These restrictions offered glimpses of what’s possible in terms of improving air quality, if we shift to more sustainable ways of getting from place to place.

The glimpses were, unfortunately, fleeting. Below, we see the presence of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide in the air over China as that country went into, and out of lockdown – from a high concentration (dark red) to low (light cream in color), and then back again.

Data from Sentinel-SP NRTI NO2. US date format.
Data from Sentinel-SP NRTI NO2. US date format. Image: World Economic Forum

The US became the source of unrest unrelated to the pandemic after the death of George Floyd in May. Protestors around the world responded by calling attention to the impacts of systemic racism – like the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed by police every year.

Below, we see recorded police shootings of Black people in the US throughout 2020, represented by a faint blue dot over its location.

Data from Count Love, Mapping Police Violence, The Washington Post, The Wikimedia Foundation. US data format.
Data from Count Love, Mapping Police Violence, The Washington Post, The Wikimedia Foundation. US data format. Image: World Economic Forum

One crisis sure to last with us long after 2020 ends is climate change. In the waning days of the year, the UN published a report suggesting that despite a dip in carbon dioxide emissions this year, we’re still headed for a potentially catastrophic temperature increase in excess of 3°C above pre-industrial levels this century – though a green pandemic recovery could yet bring the world closer to the goal of limiting the increase to 2°C.

Below, we see projected average temperatures from June through August over time under a worst-case climate scenario, where dark red is equal to 38°C (100.4°F) and above.

Data from Climate Impact Lab.
Data from Climate Impact Lab. US date format. Image: World Economic Forum

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find data visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Systemic Racism, Climate Change and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

An astronaut’s eye view: Life inside the International Space Station

If you want to make progress on all the major global challenges, start with water

“Health and environment first of all”, EU says with forced optimism after 7th round of TTIP talks

Syrians ‘exposed to brutality every day’ as thousands continue fleeing ISIL’s last stand

UN human rights chief denounces grave ‘assaults’ on fundamental rights of Palestinian people

More than 1 in 6 young adults in the EU were not in education or work in 2020

GSMA Reveals Shortlist For 2019 Asia Mobile Awards

Data governance: new rules to boost data sharing across the EU

Climate change is threatening Switzerland’s stunning scenery

Financing the 2030 Agenda: What is it and why is it important?

Simpler EU energy labels for lighting products applicable from 1 September

MEPs agree on future regional and cohesion funding

What happens when you toss your water bottle in the trash?

EU foreign investment screening mechanism becomes fully operational

We can end TB right now. Here’s how

Let the Italians have it their way, it may be good for all Eurozone

Mobile 360 Africa 11-13 July 2017

UN chief calls for ‘far greater support’ for Cyclone Idai response

Balancing The Broken See-Saw of Gender Power Dynamics as a Medical Student

Using the quarantine to your advantage

How bad could British healthcare get for its citizens abroad post-Brexit?

Deutsche Bank: the next financial crisis is here and the lenders need €150 billion from taxpayers

The banks first to benefit from the new euro trillion ECB plans to print

17 innovations accelerating the transition to a circular economy

The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) on the arrest of Turkish Medical Association leaders

The European Union provides additional €17.2 million to support health systems in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan

Bangladesh: Head of UN refugee agency calls on Asia-Pacific leaders to show ‘solidarity’ with Rohingya refugees

Can we crack the hydrogen puzzle this time around?

BRICS’ New Development Bank turns four: what has it achieved?

UN says ‘many humanitarian achievements’, one year after ouster of ISIL from Mosul

Finnish Prime Minister calls for a more united EU of concrete actions

Russia: EU Presidents condemn Russian sanctions against EU nationals

Eurozone cannot endure any longer youth marginalisation

Europe faces economic turmoil as Italy gets closer to the Excessive Debt Procedure

Mental Health in times of a pandemic: what can each individual do to lessen the burden?

Monday’s Daily Brief: #ClimateAction for the Pacific, Gaza blockade, attack in Burkina Faso

Beyond representation: appreciation and recognition of women in medicine

COVID-19: Why we must take the widescreen view of workforce uncertainty

“Only through energy policy we can trigger competitiveness”. The Sting live from #EBS2015: Energy Union – When will it happen?

Why women have an essential role in biodiversity conservation

FROM THE FIELD: Hardy seeds bear fruit to protect Colombia’s environment

Here’s how governments can mobilize technology for the SDGs

EU-US relations on the dawn of the Trump era

Afghanistan: lead MEPs demand safe departure of EU nationals and Afghan partners and urgent tackling of humanitarian crisis

Antitrust: Commission accepts commitments by Transgaz to facilitate natural gas exports from Romania

The financial crisis always prefers the south of Eurozone

Top UN court orders Myanmar to protect Rohingya from genocide

Despite funding crisis, Palestine refugee classrooms set to stay open, says UNRWA

Writing a greener story in Asia and the Pacific amidst COVID-19 outbreak

Palliative Care: the guarantee of a Human Right

Respond to ‘legitimate grievances’ of Sudanese people, UN human rights experts urge, following protests

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Romania submits official recovery and resilience plan

Baking The Galette-des-rois Of Egalitarianism

Cutting CO2 emissions from trucks: MEPs reach deal with Council

EU will not deliver on promises without democratic accountability

ESCALAR: up to €1.2 billion to help high potential companies grow and expand in Europe

1st Exclusive High Level Dialogue: China-EU Cybersecurity and 5G Cooperation

What the next 20 years will mean for jobs – and how to prepare

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: