Dec. 29 (UPI) -- With 2020 retreating into the rear-view, many are probably eager to say "good riddance" to some of the most upsetting stories in this year that began a new decade -- perhaps with a hope that 2021 will bring better fortunes.
Four of the year's biggest stories -- COVID-19, the explosion of civil unrest, the divisive 2020 presidential election and unprecedented natural disasters -- all had significant negative aspects.
As these same stories continue into and evolve in 2021, they will be watched closely for signs that the bad news they wrought could perhaps change into something more positive.
The rise of COVID-19
Undoubtedly, the biggest reason to bid "sayonara" to 2020 was the once-obscure virus that virtually took over the world. Technically, the coronavirus actually emerged on the final day of 2019 when the Wuhan, China, Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of pneumonia cases. A novel coronavirus was eventually identified as the cause.
The World Health Organization published its first report on the new virus on Jan. 5 after reports surfaced of travelers from Wuhan arriving in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore with fevers.
Almost a year later, the global pandemic caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has killed nearly 1.8 million people and is still spreading rapidly. There have so far been more than 81 million cases worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In addition to the colossal death toll, the World Bank predicts that the pandemic will push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty.
In the coming year, the COVID-19 story will switch to efforts to control its spread with the help of new vaccines to be rolled out globally in what is likely to be the biggest distribution effort in human history.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said in November the vaccines would "have a major positive impact" very quickly after their initial distribution to healthcare providers and high-risk individuals.
Fauci has said "the ordinary citizen" should be able to get the vaccine by April, May or June, which could mark the beginning of the end of the health crisis in the United States.
The U.S. economy, meanwhile, by summer was showing signs of bouncing back more quickly than expected from the COVID-19 shock, prompting many analysts to predict that 2021 -- absent any other disasters -- should mark a slow return to pre-pandemic levels of economy activity.
Depending on effectiveness of the vaccines, University of Michigan economists in November forecast that U.S. gross domestic product will grow by 4.2% during 2021.
Others, however, aren't as optimistic.
Phillip Braun, a specialist in emerging economies and financial markets for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said the trauma to the economy has been repeatedly underestimated.
In fact, he told UPI, "there's a chance that early in the year we could fall into another recession, given the level of the pandemic at this point, the [$900 billion] COVID-19 package coming out of Congress being so small and the lending restrictions being put on the Federal Reserve.
"Because of that, I think it's quite possible by the second or third quarter, we could find ourselves in the midst of a double-dip recession across this year and 2021."
The COVID-19 resurgence that began in the fall, Braun added, will likely set the economy back and frustrate analysts who expected the vaccines would put things back on course more quickly.
"Some were predicting we could move back to pre-pandemic trends by the end 2021, but even with a vaccine coming through I think people are too optimistic about how long the roll-out is going to take," he said.
Due to the "inadequacy" of the stimulus bill, he predicts this winter might see many more bankruptcies that will draw out the recovery.
The 2020 Election and the Supreme Court
If it wasn't for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the indisputable story of the year might have been the most divisive and contentious presidential election campaign in recent memory -- a contest that even now, eight full weeks after Election Day, still has one of the candidates refusing the reality of their defeat.
Add to the deep partisan divide of the electorate a rare Supreme Court vacancy -- just a couple weeks before Election Day, no less -- and 2020 was one of the most politically consequential years on record.
The depths of the split in the United States were brought into sharp focus as President Donald Trump, responding to polls showing him behind, rolled out a strategy of confrontational "law-and-order" appeals to his base, painting Black Lives Matter demonstrators as dangerous and sharpening attacks on what he called "radical left anarchists."
Democrats, in turn, attacked Trump and GOP supporters as existential threats to democracy as they united around Biden when he became the presumptive presidential nominee in March. His eventual victory over Trump ignited spontaneous outpourings of joy from supporters -- and baseless cries of "voter fraud" from the president's throng.
"Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end -- here and now," Biden declared in his victory speech on Nov. 7, promising to be a healer of the nation's political wounds.
Whether President Biden can accomplish such a tall order will be one of the main storylines to watch in 2021. Trump still hasn't conceded -- and almost certainly never will publicly acknowledge that he lost fair and square -- and only a small potion of Republican lawmakers had acknowledged Biden's victory before the Electoral College formally cast their votes in mid-December.
Many of those Senate and House Republicans return as part of the 117th Congress in January after infuriating Democrats by pushing through Trump's Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, the third of his presidency and one that gave conservatives a 6-3 majority on the bench.
What might Biden's first 100 days in office look like? He will be facing serious challenges on climate change, foreign policy, immigration and many other areas -- but perhaps none as pressing as the economy-pandemic dynamic.
"I think the Biden administration will realize there has to be a balance between control of the pandemic through restrictions in daily activities and the economy," says University of Michigan epidemiologist Arnold Monto.
"We've had a great deal of emphasis on the economy under the Trump administration -- the feeling that if you really try to respond appropriately with face masks and other measures, you will in some ways block economic activity," he said. "In reality, that should not be the case."
One thing about the new administration, Monto noted, is that it won't "create differences where they don't exist" while attempting to control the virus.
Biden will also quickly chart a far different course than Trump on the environment as he looks to roll back as many of the current administration's industry-friendly rules. He's already said he will immediately move to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.
Biden's early personnel choices, including Deb Haaland as interior secretary and Gina McCarthy as climate adviser, signal he'll "move quickly on meaningful environmental protections and climate action," Madden told UPI in an email.
"One of the first items is unwinding the damage done," Alice Madden, executive director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy & the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, told UPI in an email. "There is a long list of rollbacks of detrimental executive orders and agency rules ready to go."
"As to changing the rules, the degree of difficulty depends upon where in the rule-making process the Trump administration is -- and if they proceeded legally, which cannot be assumed," she added.
Biden's nomination of former Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate "tells the world we are serious about taking responsibility for our emissions and instituting climate action," Madden says.
Social equality and justice
Again, here we have another staple of 2020 that, were it not for a rare pandemic and a historically divisive presidential campaign, almost certainly would have been the year's indisputable top story.
Even amid the worst pandemic in a century, millions of Americans of all races contributed to a civil rights movement not seen in the United States in almost 50 years.
The largest of the protests began on May 26, a day after 46-year-old George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for several minutes. The graphic video of his death sparked a worldwide movement of non-violent protests calling for police reforms and an end to racial inequality.
Trump blamed the violence on "far-left" anti-fascist organizations and sent federal police units into cities such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle, over the objections of local leaders.
The president's response contributed to the cultural divide in the United States over social and racial justice, equality and the role of police -- and energized activists to play a key role in Biden's eventual victory in November.
In some respects, the large-scale protests of 2020 were successful in changing the priorities of local governments. For instance, the Washington D.C., City Council reallocated $10 million in funding in the police budget.
In Minneapolis, council members succeeded this month in shifting nearly $8 million away from the police department to programs for violence prevention and a mental health crisis response team.
In California, lawmakers have committed to prioritizing police reform in the upcoming legislative session after six bills on the issue failed in 2020.
Among the likely proposals are a system for decertifying police officers who commit serious offenses or abuses and a measure mandating steps officers must take when they witness excessive force.
"We have made a lot of headway," Black Lives Matter D.C. activist April Goggans told WUSA-TV this month while reflecting on 2020. "I think the conversation around 'defund the police' has...brought in people who said, 'Oh this is a new idea.'"
So, where might these movements go in 2021?
Because communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, activists' focus could broaden to include efforts for economic justice as well as criminal justice, said University of Chicago political science professor Michael Dawson.
"We have to remember that those movements were well underway before 2016," he said recently.
"They actually originated during the Obama administration, and were focused initially on instances of police brutality in places like Chicago and Ferguson, Mo."
While police brutality is certain to remain a central focus, Dawson expects more attention to be given to economic issues, "including universal healthcare."
He also expects activists to urge Biden to address "economic devastation" that many Black communities are seeing.
"Some of the things that would really constitute a change for those communities actually aren't race-specific; they're universal," he said. "Or other programs that might create new job opportunities."
Nonstop natural disasters
A seemingly perpetual series of natural disasters are another reason many will bid 2020 a not-so-fond farewell.
In one of the toughest years on record, wildfires ravaged the western United States and a record-setting hurricane season produced almost 30 named storms and brought death and damage to the Southeast.
Hurricanes and tropical storms battered Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. In mid-September, for instance, there were five storms churning in the Atlantic simultaneously for only the second time on record.
Louisiana was hit particularly hard -- when Hurricane Zeta made landfall there on Oct. 28, it was the record fifth named storm to hit the state in a single season.
On the other side of the nation in California, close to 10,000 wildfires were reported this year and burned nearly 4.2 million acres. Five of the six largest fires in state history happened in 2020, headed by the Complex fire in August that torched more than 1 million acres in northern California.
The deadliest fire was the North Complex fire, which killed 15 people and destroyed more than 2,300 structures in three northern counties.
Natural disasters will likely again be in the headlines in 2021, especially since the initial outlook for the coming year's Atlantic hurricane season again points to an active season.
The most likely scenarios indicate a 50% chance of either "above-average" or "very strong" hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin again in the coming year, according to an early analysis published this month by Colorado State University.
The forecast predicts a 60% chance of at least one named hurricane making landfall along the Gulf Coast at some point during the year, while Florida and the rest of the U.S. Atlantic Coast has a 61% chance.
The outlook for the 2021's wildfire season in California was similarly unpromising as the old year ended.
Citing the emergence of a cooling "La Niña" weather pattern to the equatorial Pacific late in the year, the National Interagency Fire Center predicted intensifying drought conditions for much of California throughout the winter months and into the spring.
"La Niña will continue to significantly impact the winter fire season in California by producing persistent drier than average conditions along with a possible higher frequency of wind events," the agency said.
The role of climate change in natural disasters will also be a much-discussed topic in the coming year, especially when the delayed COP26 United Nations climate change conference is held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
By that time, it should be apparent if 2021 will continue a pattern of some of the hottest years ever seen on Earth -- a streak begun in 2015 when global temperatures first exceeded 1 degree Centigrade above the pre-industrial period.
At least one authoritative early prediction from Britain's Met Office concluded that 2021 likely will break that string of ever-higher annual global mean temperatures, mainly due to the cooling effects of the La Nina pattern in the Pacific.
Its forecast of 1.03 degrees above the pre-industrial average is slightly lower than this year's record-high level -- but no reason to celebrate, Met Office scientist Nick Dunstone said this month.
"The variability of the La Niña/El Niño cycle is the second most important factor in determining the Earth's temperature, but it is simply dwarfed by the forcing effect of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," he said.