The good news from 2020: 10 sunny stories from an otherwise dark year

January 22, 2021
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For many the year 2020 will go down as one of the darkest in living memory. But amid the tumult sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, there was the rare piece of good news to bring a bit of cheer. Here are 10 feel-good items from what has generally been seen as an annus horribilis.

1. Vaccines developed to halt Covid-19

The dawn of the coronavirus crisis that would go on to spread around the world immediately touched off a global race to find a vaccine. That unprecedented endeavour, built on international cooperation, concluded with a number of the precious serums being administered to those most vulnerable to Covid-19 in France and the rest of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Russia before the year was out. No vaccine in history has ever been developed so rapidly.

As a bonus, the research deployed towards coronavirus vaccines also provided a boost in the development of treatments based on synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA). First developed in the 1970s, the technique could be used to fight certain types of cancer.

2. Lockdowns lead to better air quality

Much of humanity breathed better air in 2020. The slowdown and stoppage of sectors of the economy as the world locked down to fight the pandemic allowed for reductions in air pollution in multiple countries. As early as February, NASA satellite images illustrated a drastic drop in concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is mainly produced by vehicles and thermal power plants, in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In its annual report, the United Nations Environment Programme said reductions in industrial activity, electricity production and travel should result in a 7 percent drop in emissions in 2020. The good news should be tempered, however, by the fact that even reductions of that magnitude will only mean a 0.01°C drop by 2050 as global temperatures continue to rise.

3. The unstoppable rise of the bicycle in France and Europe

Good for health and good for the planet, cycling took centre stage in 2020, the year of the bike. In 2019, nearly 4 out of 10 urban professionals said they rode a bicycle to work. That trend accelerated markedly this year in France. From the French pension reform strikes that made getting to work a headache for many early in the year to the pandemic that changed office life as we know it, many big-city residents began pedalling for their commute and for local journeys. The number of cyclists rose more than 200 percent in 2020 on certain routes in large French cities, according to Strava, a smartphone app for cyclists and pedestrians.

Indeed, the trend extends to all of Europe. In the Netherlands, already a cycling hotspot, bicycle sales exploded amid the pandemic, drawing comparisons to the run on toilet paper that characterised coronavirus lockdowns early on. In Belgium, bicycle usage rose by 69 percent, according to Google Maps statistics. In London, cycling increased so much that Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to quadruple the number of bike paths in the British capital.

4. Polio officially eradicated on the African continent

While the world’s attention was hanging on the coronavirus crisis, the battle against poliomyelitis was quietly won in Africa: The World Health Organization officially declared wild polio eradicated in Africa on August 25. “Ending wild polio virus in Africa is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time and provides powerful inspiration for all of us to finish the job of eradicating polio globally,” declared WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The virus used to paralyse an estimated 75,000 children annually across the continent.

5. Hostages freed

A number of hostages were released from their captivity in 2020. Three French nationals and one Iraqi working for the SOS Chrétiens d’Orient NGO, who had been abducted on January 20 in Baghdad, found freedom on March 26. Those who kidnapped Antoine Brochon, Julien Dittmar, Alexandre Goodarzy and Tariq Mattoka remain unknown, but the abduction is thought to have been carried out by a Shiite militia close to the powers that be in Iraq and Iran.

Meanwhile in Iran, Roland Marchal, a specialist in the conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa, was released on March 21 after a prisoner swap between Paris and Tehran. Marchal had been detained in Iran since June 2019 along with the Franco-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, a researcher at France’s Centre for International Research (CERI-Sciences Po). Adelkhah, for her part, was released temporarily from prison; she remains in Tehran with her family, monitored via an electronic tag.

Aid worker Sophie Pétronin, who was the world’s last remaining French hostage in 2020, was finally released on October 8, nearly four years after her abduction by gunmen in Gao, northern Mali, on Christmas Eve in 2016. Pétronin, who was the head of a small children’s charity in the country, was freed alongside opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé and two Italian nationals in exchange for 200 jailed militants released to Malian jihadists.

6. Some good news for rare and endangered species

There were also some encouraging signs for animals at risk of extinction throughout 2020. In Asia the pangolin was withdrawn from the pharmacopoeia of traditional Chinese medicines, which had ascribed virtues to the animal’s scales. An estimated 200,000 of the creatures are pulled from the wild every year. In recent months, China has more broadly forbidden the use of wild animals for consumption as food, citing a risk of transmissible disease to humans, but the market remains legal for scientific research and traditional medicine.

In Africa, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced on March 19 that the African black rhino, a critically endangered species, is doing a little better this year than it was eight years ago. Their population numbers have risen from 4,845 in 2012 to 5,630 this year.

For the first time since January, biologists on an expedition on Kangaroo Island, Australia, observed a zebra-tailed little pygmy possum (Cercartetus lepidus) after they thought the species had been rendered extinct by the monumental bushfires that had raged in the country in late 2019 and early 2020. The 10-centimetre-long marsupial is the smallest of the known pygmy possums.

France has also had good news on the at-risk species front. The ibex made its triumphant return to the French Pyrénées, the crowning achievement of a long Franco-Spanish project. More than a century after the mountain sheep disappeared from the region, a new generation of 70 kids was registered in 2020.

7. Egypt puts an end to animal rides

More good news for our animal friends. After elephant rides were banned at the Angkor Wat monument in Cambodia in 2019, Egypt has now banned camel rides near the tourist sites at the pyramids of Giza.

In France, animal rights campaigners notched another victory with news that wild animals would be “gradually” forbidden in travelling circuses in the country. Environment Minister Barbara Pompili also announced on September 29 that the reproduction and introduction of new orca whales and dolphins at France’s three dolphinariums would be banned.

8. Brazil’s footballing women score one for equal pay

“There is no more gender difference,” the president of the Brazilian football confederation told a press conference on September 2. The national women’s team players in the football-mad country will now be paid “the same amount for prize money and daily rates” as their male counterparts.

Equal pay remains a distant dream for many women playing in clubs and national teams elsewhere, where salaries display dizzying gaps. Some, such as the US women’s national team, have of late sought to rectify the disparity in court.

9. French start-up discovers enzyme that can recycle plastic ad infinitum

A firm based in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, has developed a revolutionary technology that will allow for the limitless recycling of polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PET, which represents more than half of all plastics used worldwide. The researchers announced the discovery of an enzyme on February 27, 2019. This year they modified it in a laboratory with the assistance of three scientific institutes (Insa Toulouse, Inrae and CNRS) to create a molecular champion of plastic absorption.

Since then, the company has built an industrial demonstrator outside Lyon that can recycle 2,000 tonnes of PET and that will be operational in 2021. The start-up firm is slated to build an enormous European plant in two years’ time with the capacity to recycle 100,000 tonnes per year and another 10 plants throughout the world by 2030.

10. Lockdowns open doors for new forms of artistic performance

Many artists around the world who were deprived of the stage by the coronavirus pandemic took to performing virtual concerts in 2020. Global stars like Metallica, Kylie Minogue and Boy George could offer up fresh performances via social media and innovate ahead of their return to the physical stage when the crisis ends. French musicians including M, Keren Ann and Christine and the Queens offered free concerts for their fans. The shows represented a boon for less wealthy fans, who could catch their favourite artists in concert from their living rooms.

Lockdowns also appear to have inspired some of the greats. Legendary US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, for one, who hadn’t put out a new original single in eight years, offered his fans a 17-minute song, “Murder Most Foul”, back in March.

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