As the tumultuous 2020 winds down to a close it would be wise to take stock of a year that has changed the lives of billions of people, including in our region, in so many ways. There are many takes and angles to consider but here are the three main ones that stand out for me.
COVID-19 and its variants:
Just as the world was breathing a sigh of relief as vaccines began to roll out and inoculation plans were being adopted, at least three new variants of the COVID-19 virus were detected in the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa. Instead of relaxing measures to contain the outbreak, countries quickly closed their borders, banned flights from the UK and anxiously waited for scientific advice on the efficacy of the new vaccines in fighting the new strains of the virus.
Months of lockdowns and restrictions have played havoc with the global economy. There are relative success stories in containing the pandemic; the UAE is a clear showcase, but overall it is believed that the only way to repulse the spread would be through mass vaccination across the globe; a process that would take months.
The new variant, which is believed to be 50 per cent to 70 per cent more infectious than the standard COVID-19, has upset the global economic recovery, which has started earlier in December as countries authorised the use of new vaccines. Scientists are studying the new variants and believe the virus will continue to mutate. It is now a race to vaccinate as many people as possible.
So far more than 79 million people have been infected with more than 1.7 million fatalities. The effects of the pandemic on economies will be felt for most of next year. In our region there will be a need to come up with a regional approach to stimulate economies that have become interdependent. More importantly there is a need to learn from the lessons that accompanied the first and second waves of the pandemic.
Cyber warfare is the new normal:
In the midst of the pandemic the United States has been the victim of the largest cyber attack of its kind in history. US officials admitted last week that Russia was behind a large-scale cyber attack that has targeted federal and private servers including the Pentagon, State and Treasury departments. The attack had nothing to do with last November’s US presidential elections, but has been taking place for months. The US federal agencies are yet to estimate the size of the digital breach.
This attack is one of many smaller scale ones that took place in 2020 targeting private companies in Europe and the US mostly in search of sensitive data. Russia is suspected to have used cyber warfare to influence the results of the 2016 US elections.
President Donald Trump had contradicted his own government, which has blamed Russia, instead wondering why it could not be China. Regardless, the cyber attack ushers in a new form of war and espionage that would affect the entire world. With power plants and grids, oil rigs, airports and other strategic venues connected to the internet it becomes a high security priority for all countries to adopt a national defence plan against cyber attacks.
It is both ironic and worrisome that with billions of dollars that the US has spent in the past decade on strengthening its defence against cyber attacks, it becomes the first country to witness such an unprecedented cyber breach. There is little doubt that the new US administration will seek ways to retaliate; triggering a series of digital tussles.
The US elections saga:
With less than 28 days left before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, President Trump continues to contest the result of the elections and is seeking ways to overturn it. Never in US history has the peaceful transfer of power been in doubt. Trump, who insists that election results were fraudulent has visited ideas to nullify the outcome including pushing Congress to reject the Electoral College certification which handed victory to his rival Biden.
The world watches in awe as the most powerful nation and a symbol of democracy becomes so polarised by the lack of a smooth transition. Trump has changed US politics dramatically and even as he attempts to overturn election results one can be sure that he will continue to be a key figure long after leaving the White House. As unpredictable as he is, Trump is not expected to concede and will continue to rev his base, leaving the US deeply divided and making it somewhat difficult for his successor to heal a wounded nation.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.