The Perito Moreno Glacier, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina This glacier is one of the few in the world not retreating due to climate change, continuing to accumulate and lose mass in equilibrium; Leo O'Mahony
It cannot be said that 2020 was an uneventful year. Restrictions have slowed things way down—some things to a halt. Education systems have stalled, arts industries have quietened to the point of dormancy, the Olympics postponed. That’s not to say there haven’t been races—presidential ones, aeronautical ones, pharmaceutical ones—but they’ve been subsumed under an air of lethargy. Years are typically eventful things; although time moves us forwards, advancing isn’t always possible. Every year, economic crises paralyse, hurricanes flatten towns, wars wreck growth, snatch futures. But it is unusual that peacetime states put the brakes on a very human obsession with exponential improvement.
As Justin Bieber posited, we are human beings, not human doings (‘Just be.’ he told his 152 million followers in November). It’s not entirely clear what he was going for; maybe he was trying to subvert expectations of efficiency, imploring us to abandon the hamster wheel of capitalism in favour of a concept of productivity far more nuanced than the one we currently hold. Maybe he wasn’t. But this got us thinking. When’re we being still, and when are we doing nothing? When does slowing down give us space to progress in a focused and enlightened way, and when does it send us backwards, forcing (or allowing) us to regress?
Some things, like schooling, stopped completely. In the United Kingdom, school-closures led to major learning losses for school-age children, (particularly unsettling given a large chunk of the UK’s first lockdown was in the summer holidays). It’s not that less has been learnt, it’s that what’s been learnt has been lost. Ofsted reported in November that some children have “lapsed
back into nappies”, and many older kids, it said, have “lost stamina” in developing and maintaining their literacy.
These Covid-19 epidemics have seen citizens undergo voluntary paralysis in the name of safety and national interest—and for those radical conservatives for whom regression (if we take regression to mean the undoing of progressivist policy) is on the agenda, stasis has provided political opportunity. In March 2020, several southern states in the US attempted to capitalise on Covid-19, deeming abortion a non-essential procedure and closing clinics; though countries like the US are more pro-choice than they used to be, liberal rights like access to abortion are recent and fragile. In nations where such rights aren’t realised, it is proximity to progressive ideals which gives women a choice. Poland’s hard-line stance on abortion, somewhat undermined by abortion laws in neighbouring Slovakia and the Czech Republic, has caused uproar as lockdown restrictions exposed a dependency on the usual workarounds.
As pre-existing priorities have given way to reacting to immediate threat, our anxieties over waste and the climate have been relegated to the back seat. Vast quantities of personal protective equipment have been an unsustainable saving grace, but does a more hygiene-conscious world have to mean a less eco-conscious world? According to a September report by the British Dental Journal, demand for single-use plastic is projected to stay at an elevated level until 2025. If everyone in the UK wore single-use masks for a year, it would create an excess of up to 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste.
Though the search for a vaccine has
arguably been more reactionary than progressive, the worldwide race to fabricate a vaccine safely has forced us to focus on the (often problematic) relationships between central governments, pharmaceuticals and public subsidies. The Pfizer/BioNTech jab was the fastest vaccine to go from concept to reality, with millions of the UK and US’s health workers and most vulnerable citizens receiving doses through the winter, but how vaccination access will translate elsewhere is unclear.
The director for the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention raised concerns in December that the continent may not see a vaccine until late 2021 because of excess stockpiling by wealthier nations. A report by the People’s Vaccine Alliance—a group which includes Oxfam and Amnesty International—indicates that if you take into account orders for vaccinations still undergoing clinical trials, affluent countries have bought enough doses to vaccinate their populations three times over by the end of 2021. In an effort to address the imbalance, the COVAX facility—a collaborative WHO-initiative—is working to provide developing nations equitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine. The uniquely storage and transportation-friendly Astra Zeneca/Oxford vaccine was a breakthrough addition to the candidate lineup last December, but if COVAX is to rollout vaccinations at the scale and speed necessary to accommodate the high demand, it is going to need more vaccine-developers to join its programme. And unless vaccines are distributed according to need over wealth or access, Covid-19 risks becoming a new front for class-based divisions and exploitative diplomacy (where poorer countries host clinical trials in exchange for doses).
"The way tech stimulates gives us the illusion of movement and change, society and friendship, of progression, all of which disguises the reality: that networks are a thick, dark glue that sticks us to our seats."
Accessibility is also going to be an issue in nations like the US with no national health care system, which will make the who-gets-the-vaccine-when conversation a more complicated one (not to mention the array of state vaccination strategies and incentive schemes which will undoubtedly complicate vaccine distribution matters there), while unsubstantiated claims of a global coronavirus hoax means that many across the world will reject vaccination entirely.
Another challenge is going to be persuading people to accept the product of what they perceive to be a rushed process. The novel mRNA technology used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines is a key factor behind the speed of their development. Unlike traditional vaccines that put a weakened or inactivated live virus into our bodies, mRNA (messenger-RNA) tech teaches our cells how to produce the protein that triggers an immune response. Development involves fewer components and steps than more complex traditional methods so clinical trials can happen much sooner and be manufactured faster (Bill Gates-microchip-free), making the process significantly more scalable and easier to standardise. So, public scepticism in the face of such a scientific triumph is a real problem. At this stage, it is also uncertain how long vaccine-induced immunity from any of the developed vaccines will last or their long-term effectiveness against new strains of the virus, but that makes it even more critical for Covid-19 vaccination to be normalised in
case immune responses fade sooner than expected and additional doses per person are needed.
This is where we can mobilise brand culture and mass followings. Getting celebrities to promote vaccination has proven successful in the past; before a vaccine became available in the late 1950s and 60s, polio was paralysing hundreds of thousands of children every year. But within six months of Elvis Presley receiving his jab live on The Ed Sullivan Show in October 1956, the polio vaccination rate amongst American teens had skyrocketed from 0.6% to more than 80%. With Gallup polls reporting a fluctuation of between 35-50% of Americans as unwilling to take the Covid-19 vaccine, it’s worth remembering a little-known history lesson: America partially owes its existence to George Washington’s embrace of old-school vaccination: in the winter of 1777, he inoculated his troops from smallpox, levelling the playing field against an already variolated British.
So whilst having former president Barack Obama take the Covid-19 vaccine on camera is a good idea, it may be that someone like Billie Eilish and her 74.4 million Instagram followers (Obama 31.4) might be a more effective way of encouraging people to get with the vaccination programme when demographic eligibility is expanded. Not to mention Pope Francis and his 1.2 billion Catholics.
Anticipating pushback in an age of anti-science, many leaders have decided not to
mandate Covid-19 vaccinations. In some places pushback is coming from the top. Brazil's President Bolsonaro is actively promoting vaccine scepticism—though like Donald Trump he may change his tune. Sure, scepticism can be healthy, but when populist presidents advocate for denial, they discredit the very real importance of scrutiny—and it’s not like they haven’t had help from democratic Silicon Valley heavyweights like Facebook and Twitter. From climate change and Covid-19 to vote counts and tax fraud, social media has facilitated a Trumpist redesign of public confidence. Clickbait is no longer just appealing—it is a necessary feature of arguments where rhetoric is everything. The new media game is getting you to read not pieces, but headlines, creating a red top-toned world in which titles compete for our attention. And it gets worse—advancements in video falsification software are inexorably breaching what is arguably the last remaining space for collective agreement: the video. What happens when this format loses legitimacy?
The way tech stimulates gives us the illusion of movement and change, society and friendship, of progression, all of which disguises the reality: that networks are a thick, dark glue that sticks us to our seats. Dopamine releases make life feel dynamic but mask a very real stillness: we’re not really doing much at all. But not everything is an illusion: screens do facilitate the extraordinary opportunity to look beyond our immediate environments.
"Sporadic gestures of generosity aren’t going to engender a sudden sustainable relationship with our planet—and huge acts of philanthropy like Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion climate fund are in fact distracting."
Media directs and deflects our attention, so it’s important that we be mindful of what we’re being shown and what we’re not. Now is a good time to think of what’s been overlooked in the tunnel vision of 2020. The year saw more than just a fire, a virus and an election. It saw the repression of peaceful student protests in Thailand, the development of Uighur surveillance software by Huawei for the Chinese Communist Party, the displacement of millions by internal conflict in Ethiopia. The list goes on. Arguably, introspection has been necessary, but it has excused ignorance and validated tribalism. The Black Lives Matter protests were a notable exception; in a closed world, they forced citizens to look outward, to march for racial justice when we were at our most inward-looking. Coronavirus has hammered home that being passive is being permissive. We need to look, to re-engage, and to act.
It's not all static. Unanimous international consensus on climate policy is convenient but not crucial—what matters are the agreements made by the world's two largest polluters: China and the US. In November, China’s five-year plan prioritised carbon neutrality by 2060, which will, in principle, cap the country’s ravenous emissions growth for the foreseeable future. China emits almost twice as many yearly CO2 emissions as the US—and more than the next four largest emitters combined. Even if the pledge is all talk and no trousers, talk matters when it comes to the second largest economy in the world—because business
listens. Joe Biden’s return to the Paris Climate Agreement promises planetary transformation. Resubscribing to the Climate Accords sees the United States adopt targeted climate goals. The Biden administration also has environmental policy plans that extend beyond Paris which include proposals for clean energy, a nationwide target of carbon-neutrality by 2050, and the implementation of methane pollution limits on oil companies. This could finally be the moment that the world’s two superpowers face the crisis seriously, together.
We are in the late game: corporate action on climate change is not the solution: it is what states do that matters. Sporadic gestures of generosity aren’t going to engender a sudden sustainable relationship with our planet—and huge acts of philanthropy like Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion climate fund are in fact distracting. Six lethargic years on from the signing of the Paris Agreement, the treaty is looking less a landmark than a virtue signal. As Greta Thunberg put it in December, “we are still speeding in the wrong direction”. Government and intraplanetary cooperation, the only mechanisms we have for coordinating effective response, require sufficient taxpayer funding.
To overstate the obvious, tax matters. It is not just about corporations paying more into the systems from which they benefit. It is that corporations pay something. In 2019 Amazon paid US federal taxes on just 1.2% of profits. The two years prior it paid no tax at all. The e-commerce giant was valued at $920 billion at the start of 2020;
that number is now over $1.6 trillion (and rising) and Bezos is well on-track to becoming the world’s first trillionaire by 2030. The last time individual wealth was accumulated so rapidly on this scale was over a century ago with the Rockerfellers. Contrast that with the projection from the Brookings Institute that global poverty will increase by 144 million more people in 2020 than previously forecasted in pre-pandemic conditions. If the already dizzyingly large chasm between rich and poor continues to widen so rapidly, it will not be long before the delicate legitimacy of governments and governance collapses.
Epidemics are predicted to strike at least once a decade and as populations grow and our lives become more global, those epidemics are more and more likely to pandemicise. The Covid-19 pandemic has generated radical immediate action on an international scale. So much so that you have to wonder: with so much emergency leeway after almost a year of legally-enforced lockdowns, will even the more liberal governments of the world be inclined to fully relinquish peacetime control of their citizens? Either way, operationalising any residual sense of urgency will be crucial in confronting the existential threats still facing us: climate change, poverty, technology, and complacency.
2020 led to worldwide lockdowns and the largest economic recession since the Great Depression. One consequence is that London’s population is expected to shrink in 2021 for the first time since 1988, with over 700,000 residents leaving the city since the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19 has stemmed the flow of graduates and migrants into the capital, whilst lockdowns have prompted city-dwellers to re-evaluate their living situations. Others fear the impacts of Brexit on the capital which some experts believe will lead to a long-term reduction in property demand. Whilst bad news for current homeowners, this could be beneficial for younger generations who may be able to take advantage of London’s unprecedented affordability.
Boris Johnson’s one-vaccine approach will also be under spotlight in 2021. There is mixed consensus on the approach in the scientific community, with some concerned that it may breed vaccine-resistant forms of the virus. Professor Bieniasz, a retrovirologist at Rockefeller University, is watching the UK with fear: “My concern, as a virologist, is that if you wanted to make a vaccine-resistant strain, what you would do is to build a cohort of partially immunized individuals in the teeth of a highly prevalent viral infection”.
The UK’s death rate from COVID-19 is the seventh highest in the world, recently surpassing 100,000 and with more than half of these deaths occurring since November. However, Britain is vastly outperforming its neighbours in one area: vaccine rollout. For Boris Johnson this is a huge win; the programme’s success is largely due to both Britain’s decision to opt out of the EU’s
vaccination programme as well as the early emergency authorisation of vaccines, both of which would have been more difficult if not for Brexit. After many months of negative ratings, recent polls suggest a surge of approval for Johnson. However the real credit extends far beyond Johnson, from the scientists who developed the vaccines to the NHS who are delivering a fair and efficient rollout.
Johnson may have regained approval but that is precisely when his government is most prone to mistakes. He must learn from past lessons and not succumb too quickly to the pressure to return to normalcy. Ultimately, 2020 should serve as a warning to humanity. Despite our technological progress as a species, we are still vulnerable to devastating pandemics. COVID-19 was not the first pandemic—just one example, the Black Death killed ~10% of the world’s population
—and it will not be the last. By viewing 2020 as an unprecedented time, we risk leaving ourselves vulnerable again. It is essential that in the wake of COVID-19, we exploit this narrow window of opportunity to prepare for other neglected threats such as antibiotic resistance and artificial intelligence.
To quote Dr Toby Ord, a Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University: “Without a great effort, I fear we will learn only the narrow lessons—those that might help prevent a re-run of 2020—while failing to address the increasingly important threat of engineered pandemics, or the array of other existential risks we face. This is a rare opportunity to change course, because it won’t be long before the societal antibodies from this once-in-a-century pandemic begin to fade. We should make the most of it.”
New York City will heal. It always does. After all the major events it’s faced — the Great Depression, the Harlem Race Riots, the September 11 attacks— the city always returns in a familiar, albeit different, form. The COVID-19-induced urban exodus (in spring) of those privileged enough to “flee” left many to wonder whether the virus would mark the death of NYC, while the protests in May and June in reaction to the killing of George Floyd confronted those remaining with the major inequalities that exist and persist in their beloved city.
2021 will see NYC coming to terms with the almighty year of 2020—a year which saw people forced to rethink space: home space, city space, social space, mental space. Some will be eager to return to the city, some will be so comfortable as to stay in their distant refuges. But people will return. And to those who do, NYC will markedly appear and feel different. Against what some may secretly want to believe is the death of NYC, in the wake of a ravaging airborne virus transported by the piss-flavored air of subways, cities are important. But as a convincingly large number of companies plan to reduce their office space usage in the new year, who returns is in question.
For an older generation of New Yorkers with families, remote employment supports and justifies a distance from the Big Apple in more affordable outer suburbs. Yet for a younger generation, the lure of the city, with its networking opportunities and inevitable art and music revival, will pull them back in. The vibrant and cultural centre of NYC, Manhattan, will likely undergo the greatest shift of the boroughs with an onset of
younger inhabitants. While some older New Yorkers pack up their towers of National Geographic magazines to head for greener pastures, their former enclosures open up to a new generation eager to reset.
Generational change in NYC is long overdue. But 2021 won’t just be characterized by the volume of new tenants in Manhattan: the built city will change as well. The pandemic has cleared paths for developers who give promises of a future with new jobs and fresh infrastructure. Debates on issues like rezoning will be hotly contested in the 2021 New York City Council elections.
Lame duck Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for rezoning many parts of NYC, particularly the SoHo and NoHo neighbourhoods, have laid the groundwork for a potential trans-
-formation of the cityscape. Those opposed to these plans, which mandate the inclusion of affordable housing in all new residential developments, reject the housing policies on the grounds that they are simply sizable offerings to luxury real estate developers in exchange for a small percentage of arguably “affordable” housing.
2021 will redefine space (in all forms and manifestations) in NYC. The rezoning of neighbourhoods will transform the landscape, the persistence of remote work will alter the population inhabiting it. And the impending generational change accelerated by the pandemic will be noticed by all who know NYC, from the vaguely familiar to the intimately aware.
2020 was a wild and draining year. A new coronavirus (a word many of us hadn’t heard before) hammered itself into our everyday conversations and interactions, ushering in endless conspiracy theories surrounding its origin, effect and remedies. Similarly, the pandemic brought to the forefront new and recycled debates on public welfare and government efficiency. Amongst this pandemonium, social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #EndSARS, a campaign lead by young Nigerians, made racism and police brutality a global topic.
As people across the globe continued to feel the pandemic's effects in full force, days and months blended into a continuous blur, allowing for extended reflection. My own time reflecting has made me see 2021 not as the optimistic social and economic reset many hope it will be but, rather, the next term in a mathematical sequence; the type of progression and difference between the terms 2020 and 2021 still hanging in the balance.
For me, closing the tumultuous chapter of 2020 casts my mind back to the initial end-time predictions from Western scientists about how COVID-19 would ravage Africa with significant loss of human life. These predictions have been discredited by currently available data on COVID's impact in Africa but the clear economic toll the virus has had, and will continue to have, on countries across the continent makes long-term predictions more complicated. Lockdowns in densely populated cities like mine, reduced the virus's transmission. But these lockdowns were unsustainable and crippled the informal sector, where many workers literally survive on their daily bread.
The battle with COVID-19 is shifting gears. Vaccine access and administration are already dominating this year’s debates. Indeed, the hoarding of vaccines by wealthier
nations has already begun. Foresight is needed, not only to finance vaccines but also to ensure their safe delivery; specific temperature demands may incur exorbitant electricity costs for some nations.
On the other side of the coin, it is likely that the greatest challenge will be convincing citizens to trust the government and scientists and by taking the vaccine. Lagos' hustle and bustle has already reasserted itself, as many go about their lives like the pandemic is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is to too many the fantastical creation of a bad dream or a government ploy to make the average citizen's life more strenuous. I can see it now: the WhatsApp block messages forwarding on mass cautioning about vaccines' contents, sermons from religious leaders instructing followers to trust solely in God's hands lest they be led astray. These actions and beliefs are somewhat understandable: they stem
largely from fear and confusion, which run in tangent with the inadequacies of our national education system and a deep distrust of the government.
What 2020 demonstrated was the necessity of greater youth engagement with politics including but beyond presidential elections. It highlighted how essential it is that we pay attention to and contest policies that may in the long run come back to haunt us. What I sincerely hope to see this year is strong, empathetic leadership and community--not just from elected leaders, but from each of us. We have the ability to inspire collective hope; we need to uphold the compassion and self-discipline to consider and care about how we affect others. Will our sequence have the upward incline we so desire?
Hong Kong has had a challenging year both in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic and its political climate. The 30th June saw the passing of a new security law, which allowed China to establish a new security office in Hong Kong. The law has, again, questioned Hong Kong’s autonomy and indeed amplified the existing concerns voiced by the protests.
With its Legislative Council having passed a HK$6.4 billion Covid-19 subsidy package just before Christmas, existing financial strains are evident in Hong Kong’s economy too. This has been exacerbated by the administration’s failure to contain the pandemic: with cases rising, Hong Kong has just entered its fourth wave. Our focus is rightly centred upon its economy, its health crisis, and its relation to China.
However, there are a number of issues which have disappeared into the thick, curtained folds of our attention. A key topic to watch is Hong Kong’s policy on environment. The region’s per capita rubbish disposal rate has decreased by 3.2% from 2019 and its levels of commercial and industrial waste have decreased by 4.5% to 4,503 tonnes a day. Efforts to reduce its coal-dependency were marked with the ambitious HK$200 million Green Tech Fund, launched in the first half of December. With Hong Kong’s pledge to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, we should see increasing innovation this year for its renewable energy sector.
The housing crisis, of course, remains a towering shadow over the administration’s domestic policy. The South China Morning Post has reported that more than a third of
15,000 promised transitional housing flats remain unbuilt. Hong Kong still tops the global rankings of the world’s most expensive property markets: a residential property is valued at $1.23 million on average. And embattled by reduced foreign investment, its socio-political unrest and reduced immigration, a tough climate lies ahead for Hong Kong’s commercial property market in 2021.
We should be prepared, too, for the impact that Joe Biden’s presidency will have on Hong Kong’s position on the international stage. Some are concerned that Biden may, unlike Trump, follow the approach set by former Democratic
presidents by prioritising trade relations with China. However, Biden is unlikely to be soft on China, given his emphasis on multilateralism and international pressures to ‘act tough’.
Hong Kong has always been an important indicator of the international economic, political and diplomatic machine, and I think that it faces a key number of challenges in 2021. The nature of these challenges will be determined by geopolitics as much as by the policies of its administration. Indeed, what lies ahead in 2021 will be determined by the extent to which Hong Kong asserts itself.