Hard numbers: EU COVID pass expires, Ghana MPs brawl, UK’s biggest divorce payout, Cuban vax milestone
The year started with a struggling American democracy: first the insurgency on Capitol Hill, and later the second impeachment of Donald Trump on this subject. After Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, he told the world: America is back. (Spoiler: The world is still waiting.)
Global attention quickly turned to the deployment of the COVID vaccine. He spat at first, but even as he improved he revealed deep divisions over things like health passes, vaccine warrants and patent waivers. The immunization gap between the rich world and everyone else was hard to ignore. Yet having inoculated half of the world’s population in less than a year is no small feat.
Middle East politics are getting hot again with a brief war between Israel and Hamas, presidential “elections” in Iran and Bibi Netanyahu ousted from the post of Israeli prime minister after 12 tumultuous years.
Then came a series of extreme weather events that drew everyone’s attention to climate change just months before the COP26 climate summit. But first, the world watched in disbelief at the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and then the Taliban regained power virtually overnight, just before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
As in 2020, global cooperation was hard to come by, as we saw a little at the UNGA but much more at the COP26. The fact that even faced with such an existential problem, the world’s biggest polluters did not agree on the same deadline for net zero emissions has revealed once again how fragmented global politics have become. Forget G20 or G7 – we live in a rudderless G-Zero world.
At such a crazy time, arguably the smoothest political transition came after the German elections, with Angela Merkel ceding the reins after 16 years as Chancellor – and de facto leader of Europe – to Olaf Scholz.
And now, as the end of the year approaches, we are about to mark the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union by asking ourselves whether Vladimir Putin really intends to invade the Ukraine.
More generally, there are three things that didn’t quite turn out the way a lot of people expected at the start of the year.
First, the relationship between the United States and China has not become as bad as many feared. With Biden in the White House, the world’s two largest economies haven’t exactly buried the hatchet. They remain at odds over trade, technology, Taiwan, the South China Sea and Xinjiang. But they found common ground on the climate – and national distractions for both countries have helped calm the rumors of a new Cold War. (Not to mention a hot war that, as retired U.S. Admiral James Stavridis told us, could start in Taiwan.)
The stopped development of the deterioration of relations was not the product of any one person’s grand design. Biden started his presidency with big foreign policy ambitions, but quickly got bogged down at home with feuds among Democrats over his national program, and later Afghanistan. Xi Jinping, for his part, has shown more interest in further consolidating his own power over tech giants, the Chinese economy and the ruling Communist Party than in fighting Biden.
Whether a cold peace is maintained in 2022 will likely depend on what happens inside each country, especially if they really begin to recover from the pandemic.
Second 2021 has been the year of the vaccine, but jabs alone did not end COVID. The good news is that vaccines have been successful in reducing death and serious illness. The bad news is that the distribution was uneven and the hesitations higher than expected in some places.
Where access to jabs was lacking, the Delta variant brought a more deadly wave, like the one that ravaged India for weeks. (We spoke to Indian journalist Barkha Dutt the day after her own father succumbed to the virus.) Now we are waiting to see how effective the current jabs are against omicron.
Finally, the post-pandemic recovery was not what we hoped for – mainly because we have never reached the “post-pandemic”. Even where economic growth has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the persistent virus has messed up supply chains (check out Ian Bremmer’s explanation), pushed up prices for food, energy and more. pretty much everything else.
US economist Larry Summers told us why he sounded the alarm on inflation earlier this year. We also learned from LSE’s Minouche Shafik how women have borne the brunt of the uneven resumption of the pandemic.
It’s been a disappointing year, but one of the ways that 2020 reflects 2021 is that we end the year with new hope. Last year, we eagerly awaited the arrival of the vaccine to make a difference. This year, we look to 2022 with hopes that the current pandemic wave may be the last big one. Let’s see how our optimism is doing this time around.