Not since World War II has a single phenomenon dominated the news worldwide as the COVID-19 pandemic has in 2020. In the United States a tumultuous presidential election and a wave of protests over racial injustice also drew relentless coverage.
Overshadowed, to an extent, were other dramatic developments. Among them: China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy; an apocalyptic explosion in Beirut; the shocking helicopter-crash death of basketball icon Kobe Bryant and his daughter.
Some seemingly epic events early in the year now seem distant, like President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and the January announcement by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that they were exiting their prominent roles in Britain’s royal family. Just a few weeks later came the long-awaited Brexit, Britain’s formal withdrawal from the European Union.
As most of the world battled COVID, armed conflicts broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Afghanistan’s seemingly endless war dragged on, even as the warring sides warily edged into peace talks. Massive protests challenged the ruling powers in Belarus and Thailand.
Due to past instances of sexual assault and sexual abuse, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein received a 23-year prison sentence and the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy protection.
Some other major events of 2020:
Iran: The year ended as it began with tensions between Iran and the U.S. inflamed by the killing of a top official. On Jan. 3, a U.S. drone strike killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded with a missile attack that injured dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq. In December, a mysterious attack near Tehran killed a nuclear scientist whom the U.S. and others had identified as organizing Iran’s effort to seek nuclear weapons two decades ago. Iran blamed that attack on Israel.
Immigration: Throughout 2020, the Trump administration pushed to extend a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, even as it implemented immigration policies that outraged human-rights advocates. The targets included unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the U.S.; hundreds were detained in hotels before being expelled. The administration also sought to suspend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects some young immigrants from deportation. But a federal judge ruled that new applications for the program must be accepted.
Hong Kong: China imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong. The ensuing crackdown on dissent effectively voided China’s pledge to allow the city to maintain rights promised for 50 years following the 1997 handover from British colonial rule. The arrests of leading opposition figures and the expulsion of local lawmakers — prompting the entire opposition camp to resign — led numerous countries to curtail legal cooperation with Hong Kong. The U.S. imposed travel bans and financial sanctions.
Opioids: Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, pleaded guilty to three criminal charges, formally taking responsibility for its part in an opioid epidemic that has contributed to the deaths of more than 470,000 Americans over two decades. Purdue admitted impeding efforts to combat the addiction crisis. The pleas arose from a settlement that includes $8.3 billion in penalties and forfeitures, but victims’ advocates worried that Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, might emerge with their fortune largely intact.
Notable Deaths: For sports fans worldwide, 2020 was sadly bookended by the deaths of two popular superstars — basketball’s Kobe Bryant, 41, and soccer’s Diego Maradona, 60. Among those killed along with Bryant in the helicopter crash was his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, herself a promising athlete. Other revered figures who died included U.S. civil rights leader John Lewis, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, and actors Chadwick Boseman and Sean Connery. Many admirers of liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg not only mourned her death, but deplored her replacement by a conservative, Amy Coney Barrett.
Beirut Explosion: Lebanon’s capital was devastated in August by one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. A fire detonated a stockpile of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates left to rot at a port warehouse. The explosion tore through Beirut, sucking in the air and blowing up homes as windows shattered for miles around. More than 200 people were killed and thousands injured, compounding the woes of a nation already beset by mass protests and economic meltdown.
France-Muslims: The October beheading of a teacher by an 18-year-old Chechen outside Paris, followed by the killing of three people in Nice by a Tunisian migrant, prompted France to declare its highest-level security alert. The attacks came amid a trial over the 2015 massacre at the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons of Islam’s prophet. The teacher was beheaded for showing the cartoons to his class while discussing freedom of expression — vigorously defended by President Emmanuel Macron. The caricatures and Macron’s stance fueled calls from Muslim nations to boycott French products; and some French Muslims resented the security crackdown.
Hurricanes: It was such a historically busy hurricane season that forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet after running out of assigned names. In the U.S., Louisiana took the brunt of the onslaught: three hurricanes and two tropical storms. The worst to hit the state was Hurricane Laura, which swept ashore in August. In November, several Central American countries were ravaged by two Category 4 hurricanes. In Tennessee, an outbreak of tornadoes in March killed 25 people.
Israel-Diplomacy: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored a diplomatic coup in September by signing historic accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House. It was Israel’s first normalization deal with Arab countries in more than 25 years. Later, Sudan and Morocco also pledged warmer official relations with Israel. The moves enabled Netanyahu to deliver welcome accomplishments to his electorate while under fire for his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his ongoing corruption trial.
Wildfires: Thousands of wildfires raged throughout the western U.S., claiming dozens of lives, destroying thousands of homes, and bringing apocalyptic scenes of orange skies and hazardous air. Months before the usual start of the wildfire season, drought, extreme warm temperatures and winds gusting up to 100 mph fueled some of the most destructive blazes in the region’s history. Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and frequent extreme events such as storms, droughts, flooding and wildfires — including massive brush fires that raged for months in Australia.
Associated Press reporters Jon Gambrell in the United Arab Emirates, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Rebecca Santana in New Orleans, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.