Devastated by the events in the personal life of her children and the fire that gutted a part of her Windsor Castle home, Queen Elizabeth II lamented that the year, 1992, was annus horribilis while making her Ruby Jubilee address. She could as well have repeated the Latin phrase in her recent Christmas Day address, perhaps more justifiably with her Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, narrowly escaping the jaws of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has caused great suffering and deaths in the United Kingdom. But she did not. However, what she did not say, people the world over have said so repeatedly and continue to say it in unison: annus horribilis 2020.
Catastrophic climate events including major bushfires in Australia and the United States , tropical cyclones in several parts of the world and devastating floods washing away mile upon mile of fertile soil and dislocating the lives of thousands in China, India, Nepal and Japan, climate change adversely impacted millions of people. At the same time, outbreaks of violence caused by pent-up feelings of anger, frustration and hatred, together with orchestrated attempts of vainglorious national satraps at fomenting territorial adventurism, have made life increasingly insecure in several regions of the world.
The Persian Gulf crisis has deepened with the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and the Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes in a U.S. drone attack, in January, and the daring assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh , in November.
Outside the Middle East conflict zone, bloody civil wars are raging with varying intensity in Afghanistan, Armenia-Azerbaijan , the Central African Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq and in Ethiopia between the government in power and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front . The tragedy of the Rohingya Muslims fleeing their homes to escape sectarian harassment has also highlighted the perils of creeping ethnic cleansing.
Advent of the pandemic
The Wuhan virus which spread like wildfire spared none from its tentacles and continues to rage relentlessly. As thousands get infected and die each day, the vicious virus is mutating itself into many forms overtime, triggering bewilderment. Never before has the world witnessed such colossal calamity. The pervasive adverse impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the global economy has been unprecedented, with the International Monetary Fund projecting a (minus) 4.9% contraction , leading inevitably to widespread economic depression, loss of livelihood and consequent human misery.
As the United Nations and its affiliates including the World Health Organization continue to remain bit players in the unfolding saga of the pandemic and the severity of its impact, varied countries have adopted their own methods — indigenous devices except for the ubiquitous mask, the obsessive hand-washing and the expansive personal spacing to fight the virus.
Not surprisingly in the U.S., President Donald Trump, in characteristic callousness, underplayed the grave pandemic and berated his own expert advisers like Dr. Anthony Fauci. The U.S. has degenerated into a rudderless behemoth, with its President like the proverbial Nero fiddling with twitter instead of providing leadership to overcome the crisis. COVID-19 has continued to infect and kill more and more Americans, with disturbing scenes at mortuaries. Meanwhile, racial violence and hate crimes broke out in several parts of the country, triggering social unrest and dangerously divisive rhetoric. Time magazine (December 3, 2020) lamented : “Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: this is the worst of times.”
Like the rest of the world, India too has had its COVID-19 woes ever since it was detected first in Kerala , in January, in a student who had returned from Wuhan. Despite symbolic gestures such as switching off lights and lighting diya s and sounding gongs and cymbals and the subsequent long and crippling lockdown , the virus steadily tightened its grip over the country. The hasty lockdown proved to be an unmitigated disaster, only adding to the woes of the people. The country witnessed the pathetic plight of lakhs of hapless migrant workers caught in the lockdown trudging back home, hungry and thirsty under the blazing sun, to an insecure future.
Governance till now
Holding the reins of power and with a brute majority in the Lok Sabha, the Modi 2.0 government unleashed with great gusto a plethora of controversial pieces of legislation in fulfilment of its electoral promises. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act , the abrogation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation , and the agrarian reform acts evoked strident protests from the affected sections of our diverse country. The Shaheen Bagh agitation against the CAA that was spearheaded by women, and the continuing stir against the agrarian laws by thousands of farmers are deeply disquieting as they reflect the rumblings in society. So are the muffled voices of anguish over the perceived decline of our cherished institutions of democratic governance, especially the Supreme Court of India.
As the curtain goes down on annus horribilis 2020, the world heaves a sigh of relief and awaits with bated breath the dawn of better times to be ushered in by science and technology and nurtured by human ingenuity.
T.K.A. Nair was Principal Secretary and Adviser to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh