How 2020 will be remembered in the history books
It’s been billed as ‘one for the history books’ — a rare year that will be discussed and written about in its entirety. But did 2020 really mark a turning point for humankind? Will future generations see it as a critical year that reshaped society and reoriented our relationship with the world?
Like many of her contemporaries, historian Joy Damousi is reluctant to try to predict the future.
“I think we need to be cautious when proclaiming how 2020 may or may not be seen in decades to come, because history is never fixed or static,” says Professor Damousi, director of ACU’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and one of Australia’s most distinguished public intellectuals.
Our perspective on the weighty moments of history – wars, plagues and depressions – tends to shift over time. Take the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a significant global event that, two decades on, is viewed through a vastly different lens.
“At the time, people were predicting all sorts of things about 9/11, but as it’s moved from lived experience to history, it’s become clear that it wasn’t quite the turning point people were predicting,” says Professor Damousi, immediate past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Australian Historical Association.
“So, if we’re looking at the ‘event’ of 2020 at this moment, we might read it one way right now, and in 20 years, we might read it a completely different way.”
Future historians who try to make sense of 2020 will explore how different people experienced the coronavirus pandemic, Professor Damousi says. While the impacts of the yearlong catastrophe have been felt widely, they haven’t been felt evenly.
“We know, for example, that the virus itself has posed a greater risk to the elderly, but when it comes to mental health, younger people – teenagers and young adults – have been hit really hard,” she says.
“So if you’re looking at a textbook entry for 2020 in two or three decades, there won’t be just one view, but multiple views and multiple impacts that help those future generations to get a sense of the complexity of the moment, and the mood of the time.”
There is one solid prediction that Professor Damousi is willing to make: 2020 will be seen as a tumultuous period when many of society’s fault-lines were exposed.
“The crises of 2020 didn’t just appear out of nowhere; these fault-lines and fragilities have been under the surface for some time,” she says.
“I think that’s the one thing that will remain constant now and into the future — we will identify the cracks that this pandemic imploded, the fissures that were exposed and laid bare over the course of that year.”
We sat down with Professor Damousi to explore these fault-lines, and to delve into some of the many struggles of the pandemic year.
1) Fire, flood and plague
It’s easy to forget that 2020 started with Australia’s devastating “Black Summer” bushfires, among the most severe in the nation’s history, prompting global headlines that put climate change at the fore of public debate.
“At the time, the crisis on everybody’s mind was the environmental crisis,” says Professor Damousi, “which isn’t a new thing … scientists have been warning about these extreme events for a very long time, and the bushfires simply exposed this existing fault-line.”
The fire season came at the end of Australia’s hottest and driest year on record and triggered large protests – in Australia and overseas – with people demanding governments do more to address climate change.
“That ongoing debate really culminated with the bushfires, and it allowed people to focus on the threats of global warming, how they would play out if governments didn’t act promptly. We had animal destruction, environmental destruction, destruction to property, poor air quality … it was exhausting to watch what was going on.”
Australia quickly seesawed to another climate extreme, with heavy rain and flooding bringing the fires and drought closer to an end.
Meanwhile, unrest was brewing over a mystery virus detected in the Wuhan province of mainland China. By the end of January, the novel coronavirus had spread to 15 other countries including Australia and the United States.
In a signal of what was to come, US President Donald Trump dismissed the threat, telling reporters: “It’s going to be just fine.”
2) Crisis takes hold
At the beginning of March, the world had become more alert to the risk of the uncontained outbreak, but the numbers were still low, with fewer than 9,000 known cases outside of China and fatalities in Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan.
Concerns were raised that the Chinese government was suppressing information about the virus, reprimanding doctors who sounded alarms.
“We were still trying to come to terms with the scale of the crisis, but information was patchy because China wasn’t entirely transparent about the extent of virus and how it was spreading,” Professor Damousi says.
“In an information vacuum, people are very quick to fill that space with conspiracy theories, and that is something which historians know is very common in pandemic situations.”
Scientists strongly condemned the spread of these rumours, saying they “do nothing but create fear and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus”.
Then, on 11 March, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, announcing that the virus had spread to 114 countries.
Governments responded by swiftly imposing strict public health measures to rein in COVID-19, which had skyrocketed to 1.3 million global cases and a death toll nearing 70,000 by early April.
Everyday communal life came to a grinding halt, as did local and global travel, and birdsong momentarily returned to some of the world’s biggest cities.
People responded to government-mandated lockdowns by panic-buying toilet paper and other essential items. Scapegoating also became prevalent, including racist abuse against Chinese-Australians, and misinformation was rife, with celebrities among those who fuelled confusion.
Not all nations went for strict quarantine measures. Most notably, Sweden opted for a relatively lax approach, eschewing stay-at-home orders and instead promoting voluntary social distancing.
While epidemiologists almost universally recommended stronger measures as a necessary response to the public health emergency, other experts voiced concerns that the lockdown was causing a profound global economic shock.
Forecasters predicted the greatest financial downturn since the Great Depression, and President Donald Trump declared: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease.”
The world was soon to turn its focus to the United States again, as another crisis unfolded.
3) ‘I can’t breathe’
Those three words uttered by George Floyd while he lay on the road under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer were to echo around the world, knocking coronavirus from the headlines and turning people’s focus to race relations.
The death of Floyd, an African-American man, set off the Black Lives Matter movement: a wave of protests against police brutality towards black people – first in the US and then globally – in the middle of a pandemic in which we were being advised to stay at home.
“I think the Black Lives Matter movement has to be seen in terms of the civil unrest that President Trump actively promoted, frankly,” Professor Damousi says.
“Leaders can unite, and leaders can divide, and I think Trump was in a class of his own in terms of promoting the seething divisions in America around not only racial inequality, but on other issues like vaccinations, masks and the overall restrictions.”
The fallout from Floyd’s death was also felt strongly in Australia, exposing the fragile state of race relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“That’s an obvious fault-line in Australia,” says Professor Damousi, “because we still have not come to terms with our Indigenous history, the inequality that Aboriginal people still face, and it brought those issues to the surface in ways we’ve not seen before.”
4) The lockdown dance
In the middle of the year, with daily coronavirus case numbers declining, many European nations loosened restrictions and reopened borders for summer travel.
They did this despite warnings that opening up would prompt a second wave of infections.
“The undercurrent running throughout the whole year was how governments were managing the tension between public health and the economy, while also grappling with people’s lockdown fatigue,” Professor Damousi says. “It’s a case study of the tensions that are constantly in play during a pandemic like this.”
At the same time, much of Australia was beginning to claw its way back, with state governments easing lockdown orders and people moving back into a new type of normal.
On June 9, Australia recorded just two coronavirus cases, down from a daily high of 459 on March 28. It’s second-largest city, Melbourne, recorded no new cases.
But the reprieve didn’t last long.
A month later, Victoria was in the grips of a spiralling outbreak, with some of the toughest lockdown restrictions in the world and a climbing death toll.
Melbourne’s second wave exposed another national fault-line, Professor Damousi says, as Victorians found themselves isolated from the rest of the country.
“When you consider that we are a federated nation, the fact that borders were being closed willy-nilly by state governments is remarkable,” she says.
“It exposed an ongoing fault-line in our system: Are we a federated country, or are we still a series of colonies?”
All over the world, governments continued to dance with the virus, easing restrictions when case numbers were low and reintroducing them as outbreaks sprung up.
All in all, Australia managed the pandemic year remarkably well, with less than 1,000 people dying from COVID-19 through 2020. That number was dwarfed by the death toll in the US, which neared 350,000 at the year’s end.
“What Trump did was not close the country, he kept it going as much as he could, at a massive cost, of course,” Professor Damousi says.
“It’s the same with Europe – they opened up and they paid for it with a second wave. It’s that balancing act of trying to keep the economy going while also trying to limit the death toll, and I think the historians of the future will see that.”
5) Trump’s slow exit
Future generations will also view 2020 through a political lens, especially in the US, where the presidential election highlighted the deep divisions in a nation that seemed to be losing its sole superpower status.
On October 2, a month before the election, President Trump was one of 43,753 Americans to test positive to COVID-19. This came as no surprise to health officials, given that Trump regularly undermined efforts to contain the virus and had refused to follow basic safety guidelines.
Despite the President’s mishandling of the pandemic, the election, held on 3 November, was incredibly close. It took several days of counting before news outlets declared Democratic nominee Joe Biden as winner.
Predictably, Trump and his supporters refused to concede defeat, launching an array of lawsuits claiming election fraud – most of which were proved baseless.
“I don’t think anyone could claim that Trump managed the pandemic well,” Professor Damousi says, “but it’s important to point out that 70 million people or so voted for him, so it’s not like he left in disgrace in terms of popularity. To garner that many votes, given all that had happened in 2020, is pretty extraordinary.”
In the end, however, Trump may be remembered more for his relentless stoking of divisions than for any of his achievements.
“The pandemic exposed the fault-lines in the Trump presidency in that it amplified the characteristics of his presidency,” Professor Damousi adds.
“The impact of this divisive and destructive president was made clear. His inaction led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and this encapsulates his presidency, which was based on misinformation, a disregard for expertise and an extraordinary level of arrogance, aggression and bullying.”
His graceless exit from the White House, she says, was also predictable.
“To refuse to accept the truth and to rewrite reality … that’s very typical of Trump, but I think we can seek solace in the fact that, as big as he was, he was not bigger than the system. Democracy prevailed and it prevailed with great resilience and strength.”
6) A silver lining?
With the world limping towards the end of the year and many nations dealing with soaring coronavirus case numbers, a potential silver lining appeared, with a handful of COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency distribution.
By late December, more than 30 countries had begun immunising their populations.
With very few cases, Australia took a different approach, opting to hold off until a more thorough assessment of the vaccines had taken place.
A sudden outbreak on Sydney’s Northern Beaches was still not considered serious enough to authorise a swifter rollout.
It did, however, put a dampener on the end of the year for many Australians, prompting another round of state border closures and scuffling Christmas holiday plans at a time when many thought the virus had been suppressed.
“Christmas had been ‘cancelled’, as the media liked to say, and yes, it’s a dramatic headline, but in reality, it hadn’t been cancelled, it was merely different – just like the rest of the year was different,” Professor Damousi says.
“We should in this case invoke the word of 2020, ‘pivot’. We didn’t cancel Christmas, we pivoted so we could celebrate Christmas differently.”
Despite the Northern Beaches cluster, which had made its way to Victoria before the year’s end, case numbers in Australia remained miniscule relative to many other nations.
On 31 December, the United Kingdom recorded 55,892 cases in that single day – some 27,000 more infections than Australia’s overall case count at the year’s close.
Worldwide, COVID-19 led to the deaths of some 1.84 million people in 2020, with many more fatalities feared to come.
Yet, amid all the doom and gloom, the vaccine rollout offered grounds for hope.
“There was hope that the vaccines would help us to get on top of the virus, and a widespread acknowledgement of this massive scientific breakthrough,” Professor Damousi says.
“Everyone was hoping this would ultimately lead us closer to normal by mid-2021, and I guess on that note, it was a positive end to a very difficult year.”
One thing that 2020 demonstrated firmly, says Professor Damousi, was our ability to adapt.
“Despite the pandemic and all of its challenges, we continued on with life — we reshaped the way we work and live, we called on the creative arts, we connected through technology, we looked after each other and we kept the year ticking over,” she says.
“It might be seen as a footnote at this moment, but we must acknowledge that our resilience through this pandemic year was incredible, and through all the difficulty and loss, there was hope that the story of 2020, in the end, would be a positive one.”
Professor Joy Damousi, Director of ACU’s Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, is an award-winning scholar of memory and war, the history of emotions, and migration history in relation to refugees, humanitarianism and internationalism. She is one of Australia’s most distinguished historians and public intellectuals, and a leader in the humanities in Australia and internationally.