It was no ordinary year.

By early 2020, people all over the world were forced to contend with a new normal: lockdowns, mask rules, economic crises and travel bans. Families and couples were separated. Many fell ill with the novel coronavirus or lost loved ones because of it. Millions of people lost their jobs.

But even with the pandemic as an omnipresent backdrop, life went on. Countries held elections. Protesters took to the streets. Wars broke out.

The year was, as the saying goes, one for the history books. So how will future generations look back at 2020?

Many historians will see it as “a really consequential year,” Manisha Sinha, a scholar of slavery, abolition and the U.S. civil war at the University of Connecticut, predicted.

News of the pandemic, economic collapse and other major events, such as the divisive U.S. election and its aftermath, seemed at times to shroud other important developments around the world. “That just goes to show,” Sinha said, the degree to which “things have been upended so much both domestically and internationally.”

Here are just a handful of significant events that occurred across the globe — some in the shadow of the pandemic.

Australian wildfires

By early January 2020, NASA satellites had detected more than 1 million fires in Australia since September 2019. The wildfires left a path of death and destruction in their wake. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and dozens of people died, including several U.S. firefighters who flew to Australia to assist in the relief efforts. Experts believe around a billion animals were either affected by or killed in the fires.

Photos of distressed kangaroos and koalas flooded social media and news reports. Many other, lesser-known animals and insects were also dramatically affected. The apocalyptic images, some said, could offer a glimpse of the future if governments do not better adapt to the threat of climate change, to which the prevalence of wildfires has been linked.

U.S.-Iran tensions — and then a crash

On Jan. 3, U.S. forces launched an airstrike against a convoy in Baghdad, killing top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. The attack, which came amid intensifying tensions between the United States and Iran, abruptly escalated hostilities between the two countries.

On Jan. 8, Iran launched ballistic missile attacks targeting U.S. troops in Iraq. President Trump initially claimed that no U.S. troops at the al-Asad Air Base near Baghdad were wounded in the attack, but it later emerged that many suffered brain injuries.

The next day, with tensions between the two countries soaring, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a passenger plane flying in Iranian airspace. Iranian officials later blamed the incident on “human error.”

The tragedy of the crash — which killed 176 people — preceded a widespread, deadly outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, where more than 1 million people have been infected.

Experts have warned that U.S. sanctions could impede Iran’s access to coronavirus vaccines.

Protests against police brutality

On May 25, a bystander captured the final minutes of George Floyd’s life. Derek Chauvin, a White police officer, pinned down Floyd, a Black man, by holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on a Minneapolis street.

Footage of Floyd’s killing — which came after an accusation that he had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill — quickly spread on social media. Protesters spilled into streets across the United States, railing against police brutality and systemic racism.

“We often say that war and crises often tear open our cracks in society,” said Sinha, author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.” “And you could think about racism in the United States in a similar way. It’s the Achilles heel of American democracy, and it always comes up.”

The protests came over the summer as data continued to show that in the United States, Black people and other communities of color were dying of covid-19 at far higher rates than White people. “Those inequalities and cracks in society were lying open,” Sinha said.

The protests spread internationally. Rallies for Black lives sprouted up around the world, from England and France to Australia and Brazil. The protests served as a reminder, Sinha said, that marginalized communities across the globe continue to “draw inspiration from each other,” much as they did during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.

China-Hong Kong relations

On June 30, Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed a national security law that dramatically altered life for millions of people living in Hong Kong.

Since 1997, Hong Kong had enjoyed relative autonomy from mainland China. Under a deal made during the British handover of its former colony, the city was supposed to maintain its semiautonomous rule until 2047. The agreement was known as the “one country, two systems” framework.

The new law, which went into effect on July 1, the anniversary of the handover, gave Beijing far more control over Hong Kong and left the city’s powerful pro-democracy movement in a lurch.

Punishments outlined in the law include up to life imprisonment for those accused of “separatism,” “subversion,” “terrorism” or “collusion with foreign forces.” Political parties quickly disbanded, and some activists retreated from the public eye, deleting their social media accounts. Others are fleeing Hong Kong to avoid arrest.

Pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai is among those who have already been charged under the law. He was arrested in August and was charged in December with colluding with foreign forces.

Beirut explosion

On Aug. 4, a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people, injuring thousands of others and causing extensive damage across Beirut. Neighborhoods close to the port were essentially destroyed. Homes and businesses were reduced to piles of rubble. The cleanup effort was led almost entirely by civilians who got to work trying to repair damaged buildings with little to no help from the government.

Officials soon determined that the blast originated at a warehouse in Beirut’s port, where about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were being stored. The highly explosive fertilizer, which can also be used to be build bombs, had sat in the warehouse for six years.

The explosion struck Beirut as Lebanon was already grappling with a devastating economic crisis, made worse by the pandemic and related restrictions that had forced many businesses to close or limit their hours. Many Lebanese saw the blast — and the government negligence experts say made the disaster possible — as the final straw and began making plans to leave the country and search for better opportunities abroad.


In late September, fighting broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan but controlled for decades by pro-Armenian political forces.

The two countries have long disputed each other’s claims to the region, and the latest tensions burst into a war that lasted through early November. A total of more than 5,000 troops and hundreds of civilians are reported to have died on both sides. Thousands of people were also displaced.

Russia eventually brokered a cease-fire that allowed Azerbaijan to take control of significant territory and deployed Russian peacekeepers to the region. Experts have warned, however, that the agreement reached in November leaves many key aspects of the simmering conflict unresolved.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan described the terms of the truce as “incredibly painful both for me and both for our people.”


In early November, conflict broke out between Ethiopian government troops and forces from the country’s northern Tigray region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that forces from the country’s Tigray region had attacked a national military base. He responded to the attack with a military offensive against Tigray.

Soon, tens of thousands of people were fleeing their homes in the northern region — many spilling over the border in neighboring Sudan.

Tensions had been brewing between Tigray and the central government and were intensified after Abiy — who came to power in 2018 and won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize — dismantled a ruling coalition long led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a once powerful political party. The Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa then refused to acknowledge the results of elections held in Tigray, adding to hostilities.

Abiy eventually declared victory in Tigray, but reports of clashes continued into December. Relief groups warned that a humanitarian crisis was brewing as aid groups struggled to reach the region. Several humanitarian workers have been killed in the past two months, the Associated Press reported.