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

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