Beyond coronavirus: 2020 had its bright spots and there is more to come

Nurse Annabelle Jimenez, left, congratulates nurse Sandra Lindsay after she is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, at the Jewish Medical Center, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP/ PTI Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Death. Suffering. Economic devastation. Political turmoil. The pandemic triggered a torrent of daily negative news. But throughout the worst health crisis in almost a century, there were also moments that brought relief and joy, or at least cautious optimism.

Here’s a rundown of some bright spots this year and what we could look forward to in 2021.

Off like a shot. Drugs that protect against Covid-19 were developed, tested and rolled out in less than a year — a speed unmatched in the history of vaccine science. Scientists at Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca Plc. and the University of Oxford, as well as China’s Sinopharm Group Co. went into overdrive to create vaccines for billions of people. Moreover, Pfizer and Moderna’s success in using the genetic material mRNA to transform the body’s cells into vaccine factories offers hope for developing other life-saving treatments in the future, including for cancer and heart disease.

The great WFH experiment. While it was not all smooth sailing — with childcare challenges, longer working hours, unequal access to technology or fast internet, and psychological stress — hundreds of millions of people managed to power through and work remotely for almost a year, keeping banks, schools, government agencies, businesses and even doctors’ offices running. The radical shift is also forcing a global rethink of what work could look like when the pandemic subsides. Flexible hours, fewer commutes or business trips, and splitting time between the home and office each week could become the new normal.  

WFH could become the new normal in the post-pandemic world. Photographer: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg

Trillions in stimulus. Unlike the response to the 2008 global financial crisis, governments and central banks unleashed support for workers and economies like never before: more than $20 trillion in support and counting. In some countries like France and the U.K., that has helped reduce jobless rates as well as keep the housing market and businesses afloat. Optimists also look to China’s steady economic recovery as a guide on where the rest of the world is headed in the months ahead.

LGBTQ wins. Costa Rica legalized same-sex marriage in May, becoming the 28th country to do so. Two months later, Montenegro became the first country in the Balkans to allow same-sex civil unions. The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld a law protecting gay and transgender workers from job discrimination, though it exempted small businesses. A record number of LGBTQ candidates also stood in the U.S. election, with voters electing the nation’s first transgender state senator, Sarah McBride. And Serbia’s first female and openly gay prime minister, Ana Brnabic, won a second term after her party’s landslide victory.

Nature (briefly) healed

The crash in tourism and manufacturing came at an economic cost, but also brought a much-needed pause for the environment. Air pollution dramatically fell, as much as 65%, in a number of cities — if only for a few months. Turtles and whales returned to Thailand’s now-quiet beaches, prompting the government to consider closing down nature reserves for several months a year. In Hong Kong, endangered pink dolphins returned in greater numbers after a decline in ferry services, according to a local conservancy. At the height of lockdowns in April, animals emerged in the streets of Spain, Chile and the United Arab Emirates, suggesting ecosystems can quickly rebound when human presence is minimal.

Your acne cream could hold the key to curing a disease affecting koalas. Photographer: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Supercharged clean power. Covid-19 accelerated trends transforming how we power our world as shutdowns grounded flights, idled cars and kept people indoors. Crude demand plunged, leading some experts to call the end of the oil age. Shutdowns curbed power demand, prompting some grid operators to switch to less expensive renewable energy such as wind and solar (now the cheapest sources of new electricity in most of the world, according to Bloomberg New Energy). 

Going green. The world’s top-polluting nation, China, vowed to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2060, prompting similar pledges from Japan and South Korea. Dozens of cities, states and countries have set targets to phase out new sales of fossil-fuel cars. Major U.S. banks have promised to stop financing oil-exploration projects in the Arctic Circle. Even BlackRock, the world's biggest asset manager, said it would put climate at the center of its investment strategy. Time will tell whether all of these initiatives result in lasting change.

Tech united us? Imagine a life in lockdown without technology to keep us connected virtually. Generations brushed up on their home-cooking skills, and showed them off on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Internet users embarked on virtual safaris or converged on a tropical island in the multiplayer game “Animal Crossing.” While humans were indoors, drones and autonomous robots were also deployed to deliver urgent medical supplies, groceries and more.

Margaret Keenan, 90, receives applause after being the first in Britain to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Photographer: Getty Images Europe

A year of discoveries. It’s not just vaccines that caused excitement in the scientific world this year. Researchers found an antibiotic that can treat both acne in humans and chlamydia in koalas, evidence of rainforests in prehistoric Antarctica, a 2,500-year-old Egyptian tomb containing mummies and treasures, a way to use algorithms to potentially solve how diseases invade cells, and even  signs of life in the acid-laced clouds of planet Venus. 

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