Has a new year ever been as eagerly anticipated as 2021? A fresh start, a new era, technically a new decade, a line drawn under an annus horribilis, and some genuine hope to look forward to. Making predictions is always unwise, especially about the future, they say; making optimistic ones even more so. But could 2021 be the best year for a generation?
Of course this is tempting fate. It would be far safer to predict yet more confrontation, antagonism and misery, and claim vindication the moment the first crisis of the new year erupts, whether it is in Hong Kong, Ethiopia, a snarled-up British port or an unfortunate lowland that happens to be on the receiving end of 2021’s first deluge.
So let’s quickly note the caveats: there will be times when it won’t feel like the best year of the century so far. It’s the way of news to focus on the downside, so it would be unwise to promise that all the headlines will be cheerful. Jobs, mental health, isolation, grief, poverty, inequality: as a force multiplier, the pandemic leaves quite a trail in its wake. Even if the world is on the long road to recovery, some communities devastated by Covid-19 may struggle to feel it at all.
And yet … a few recent breakthroughs have conferred a rare streak of optimism on to the new year before we have even ushered it in. 2021 will be the year of the vaccines, the year Joe Biden seeks to restore competence and civility to US leadership. It could yet be the year the EU and UK move on from the mutually assured destruction that was Brexit.
All three promise half-solutions to corrosive toxins within our system – the pandemic, populism, polarisation. None will be definitively addressed by treating the symptoms alone. 2021 will just be the start.
But at least in the case of Covid, the start may well be enough to bring about a quite giddy restoration of social life. Assuming vaccination proceeds apace in a fair and sensible manner, official promises of a late spring relaxation and a summer of love beyond seem plausible. We really could be just three or four months away from a very different world.
Crowds should be back at sporting events, and there will be no shortage to choose from in a long summer of thrilling competition. Music festivals may be viable too, as cultural life resumes, and theatres will once again throng. European businesses are cautiously optimistic about prospects for a rebound in 2021. The global economy will grow again, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and some economists are even predicting another “roaring 20s”. Simple things like a spontaneous pint in a pub garden or dinner with the extended family or a group of friends will feel strangely sublime. The second half of 2021 will feel like taking off a pair of shoes that are too small.
We’ve also learned so many valuable lessons from this crisis, wisdoms that will make post-pandemic life superior to what went before. Simple things such as neighbours, pets, volunteering and public parks all make life a little better. The daily commute – 500-plus hours every year that you will never get back – may be a thing of the past for millions around the world, paving the way for the best work-life balance we have ever had. Science is pre-eminent, the pandemic having restored the primacy of fact over rumour, academic rigour over conspiracy theory. “Remote” is here to stay, with everything from business meetings to school parents’ evenings and even medical consultations better for it. Colds and flu bugs may become less widespread now we know how to avoid them.
On the environment, it is safe to say that 2021 will again be one of the hottest years on record, that ominous weather events (Atlantic storms, bushfires, floods, drought) will again remind us of the challenge ahead. But try also to notice the overwhelming number of organisations, companies, countries that sign up to a zero carbon plan. The US will rejoin the Paris agreement. We should celebrate the plummeting cost of solar, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of new electricity generation capacity globally will come from renewable sources. Electric car sales are soaring. And we will take confidence from the fact that if humans can overcome Covid-19, they can overcome the climate emergency too, from the same mix of research, resolve, resourcefulness and the resilience of our communities.
Media will get a much-needed shot in the arm under a new Facebook licensing deal. Journalism, meanwhile, appears safer than at any point since the turn of the century, with the last two years showing a sharp decline in the number of journalists killed doing their job around the world.
The UN has designated 2021 as International Year of Peace and Trust. And while that may seem a little glib (it’s also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables), we might hope for less conflict and violence in 2021 than in recent years. Deaths from terrorism have fallen for five years in a row. Though Syria and Yemen remain wretched, the number of people killed in wars finally seems to be declining.
Of course, risks remain. A burgeoning jobs crisis will amount to the gravest economic challenge in a generation. Ditto the mental health backlash from the corrosive uncertainty, restriction and isolation of the past year. An unprecedented debt burden will drag, though with interest rates at rock bottom, the impact is unlikely to be felt until later in the decade. The pandemic has affected people so unevenly that some will live with the negative consequences of 2020 far longer than others.
Germany faces a watershed year, with the end of the Angela Merkel era heralded in September elections. The Ethiopian war could yet destabilise the entire Horn of Africa. China and Russia are both big, unpredictable quantities. Scottish elections may herald a new push for independence.
So the year of recovery will probably be an uneven thing. We should not forget that recovery is rarely a straight line or a clear sharp moment like a weather front pulling across the sky. Anyone who has suffered serious illness or injury knows it comes in stops and starts, two steps forward, one step back. But each successive upswing is a little higher, each setback a little shorter, until we find ourselves on higher ground, able to look back on what we came through.
The pandemic was a watershed: there is no going back to how things were. But that is a good thing. But for the first time in more than a decade it feels like we might be able to go forward to somewhere better.