The Bulletin World Weekly is a newsletter by Peter Bale exclusively for Spinoff members, covering and analysing the most important stories from around the globe. In this special edition, a look back at a tumultuous year.
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Historians use the expression “the long 19th century” to describe the origins, events, and lasting impact of a tumultuous century that extended beyond the strict boundaries of dates. It’s become common to talk about the “long World War One” or other critical periods.
I’m applying it to 2021 because it was the year the pandemic solidified and made us realise it is here to stay, and a year in which events from 2020, such as the US presidential election, had an immense impact, and from which profound events will flow into 2022.
As a special issue of the Bulletin World Weekly here’s a chronology of the biggest or most impactful stories we tracked through the year (with an eye to those sometimes less-reported elsewhere), some forecast for 2022 stories, plus a few extras.
A short history of a ‘long’ year
Donald Trump dominated January directly and indirectly. Already once-impeached, he directed his supporters to “fight like hell” and go to the Capitol where they created an insurrection that forced his vice president to cower in a car park rather than overturn a legitimate election. Russian democracy campaigner Alexei Navalny, barely recovered from being poisoned with Novichok returned to Moscow to a Soviet-style show trial and prison. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni cut off the internet ahead of an election that secured his hold on power. Ethiopia went to war against its own people in Tigray. By the end of January, 2.3 million people worldwide had died of Covid 19.
In February the Myanmar military deposed the elected Nobel Peace Prize-winning premier Aung San Suu Kyi, unleashing violence and a national tragedy that continues today. By the end of the month, 2.6 million people worldwide had died of Covid-19. Ethiopia and Somalia slipped further towards chaos in March. A vast container ship, the Ever Given, blocked the Suez Canal generating a surge of metaphors. The Covid death toll rose to 2.91 million.
In April, Moscow stepped up pressure on Kiev and Ukraine asked to join NATO, reigniting a long-simmering military and diplomatic crisis that may explode in 2022. In an oddly comparable step that was one of the big stories of the year, Beijing increased military flights into Taiwan’s airspace, a crisis that will also linger and heat up in 2022. By the end of April 3.29 million people had died of Covid-19.
May saw Israel attack Hamas targets in the crowded city-state of Gaza in response to a series of attempted rocket strikes, but it may have had more to do with the ultimately failed re-election campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu. Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko, the nodding dog in the back of Putin’s car, forced a civilian jet crossing his airspace to land so he could arrest a dissident — setting a pattern of provocation that extended through the year to a manufactured refugee crisis. The end-of-May death toll from Covid-19 was 3.67 million.
An extraordinary “anyone but Netanyahu” coalition won elections in Israel in June. By the end of that month, 3.9 million people worldwide had died of Covid-19. In July, US forces started a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that opened the way for the Taliban to take over Kabul, create chaos in July, and take control in August. In a special World Bulletin, we looked at the history of Afghanistan, the US-led occupation, and the future. By the end of July 4.2 million people had died of Covid, and the toll reached 4.52 million by the end of August.
Texas opened a fresh legal and moral battleground in the fraught culture wars of the United States as August crossed into September, enacting a law effectively banning abortion in the state and allowing, in fact encouraging, vigilantes to confront anyone involved in helping a woman seeking a termination. It, and a comparable law in Mississippi, are set to split the Supreme Court and open a new flank in the attempts of the right wing to challenge hard-won rights. Expect this issue and voting rights as well as Trump’s claims about the 2020 election to go on into 2022.
On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the World Bulletin looked at the damage done to US prestige by the hasty rush to war afterward, particularly in Iraq. We looked at it again in October when the former Secretary of State Colin Powell died. Also in October, the Financial Times reported China tested an hypersonic missile that could change the global power balance. Expect more in 2022, as well as US military attempts to compete. By the end of September 4.72 million people had died of Covid. The toll rose to 5 million by the end of October.
Climate change was a focus at the end of October and the start of November, where a lacklustre diplomatic effort by the UK led to a rather lame COP26 summit intended to cement the ambitions of the Paris summit five years ago. It passed much of the buck to another climate conference in Egypt next year. Personally, I found it depressing. It was hard not to agree with Greta Thunberg saying it was all “blah, blah, blah”. Belarus played astoundingly cynical games, ferrying Middle East refugees to create a fake confrontation with the EU. If you, like me, worry about the ability of journalism to hold power to account, this interview with Lukashenko by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg showed what can be done. By the end of November 5.22 million people worldwide had died from Covid-19, but 4.3 billion people — more than half the world population — had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
When you receive this we will be barely halfway through December. In my experience, big shit happens in December: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 24, the killing of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on the 25th, and the Asian tsunami hit on the 26th in 2004, killing an estimated 230,000 people. I don’t mean to depress you but be ready for happenings in Ukraine, where this week Biden appeared to blink and Putin scored a diplomatic victory; Taiwan, where China has no intention of easing up the pressure on Taipei and on Biden; and the ongoing pandemic and the threat of the fast-spreading omicron variant, offset by the amazing work on vaccination. At least 8.45 billion doses of the potentially life-saving vaccine have been administered to date.
2021 will be remembered for the spread of delta, creating one of the most challenging stories – and commercial environments – in recent memory. It made us rely even more heavily on the support of our members. If you love what we do, please consider donating today.
A window on the year
For a remarkable reminder of all that we have been through this year, the compilation of the best photography of 2021 from old colleagues at Reuters news agency is astounding. It does that thing where you realise an event you’d half-forgotten really did happen this year. It includes several by Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui who was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
May I also note that a friend, Maria Ressa of the Philippines site Rappler, received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last week, along with the equally brave Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. They are exemplars of the idea that journalism – and facts – matter.
Culture vulture lists for 2021
The New York Times published its 10 best books of the year last week. For more on the picks, it’s worth listening to the New York Times Books Podcast. You may prefer The Guardian Books review of 2021 which are recommended by writers themselves.
Google just published its list of the most-searched terms of the year, including Squid Games, Alec Baldwin, Afghanistan, and Bernie Sanders’ mittens. Here’s a Guardian report on the top international searches – and The Spinoff’s own Tara Ward on the most popular search terms in New Zealand this year.
For what it’s worth, my own recommendations for books I’ve read this year would be Apeirogon by Colum McCann, a fictionalised version of a real relationship between two Israeli and Palestinian fathers who both lost daughters to the conflict; This Pakeha Life, by Auckland academic Alison Jones; and Michael Lewis’s Covid-19 book The Premonition.
It was goodbye to…
In the World Bulletin during 2021 I highlighted a few notable deaths this year; Nikolai Antoshkin, the Soviet helicopter pilot who helped contain the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; Josep Almudéver, the last surviving member of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; AQ Khan, who created the Pakistani nuclear programme but enabled Iranian and North Korea to progress their own nuclear aspirations.
Thanks for reading the World Bulletin in 2021. See you in 2022.