After decades of work, wild polio was finally eradicated from the African continent.  |  Photo Credit: iStock Images
- A team of US researchers developed a new plastic-eating super enzyme called PETase engineered from a waste-eating bug found in Japan in 2016
- Four years after the last known case of the disease, the African Regional Certification Commission declared the continent free of wild polio
- In November, the World Health Organisation announced that deaths by malaria have fallen to the lowest level ever recorded – a reduction of nearly 60 per cent in the last two decades
Scientists engineered a new plastic-eating enzyme
Despite the widespread devastation that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, some welcome environmental changes followed mobility restrictions and shelter-in-place orders. Several countries reported cleaner air, carbon emissions fell markedly (albeit only temporarily), and animals returned in droves to reclaim lost public spaces.
However, perhaps, the most significant development was a scientific breakthrough that could have monumental repercussions going forward. A team of US researchers developed a new plastic-eating super enzyme called PETase engineered from a waste-eating bug found in Japan in 2016. The enzyme is, reportedly, capable of consuming thermoplastic – the most commonly used form of plastic – in days. Thermoplastic typically takes hundreds of years to break down.
A year to remember for renewables
A report by the International Energy Agency has shown that global renewable energy was the highest it has ever been at the end of 2020. The IEA study also revealed that a staggering 90 per cent of all global electricity installations were made using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. It also projected that renewable energy may be on track to replace coal as the most consumed power source within the next half a decade – a huge win for green energy and hopefully a trend that will continue into 2021.
Africa was finally rid of wild polio
In August, the World Health Organisation announced that, following decades of work by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, in collaboration with not-for-profit organisations and governments, wild polio was finally eradicated from Nigeria. Four years after the last known case of the disease, the African Regional Certification Commission declared the continent free of wild polio.
Polio, a hugely debilitating disease that could lead to paralysis and even death, has no cure but has a vaccine that, reportedly, offers complete protection for life. With 75,000 children in Africa estimated to have the disease in 1996, the late Nelson Mandela launched a continent-wide campaign to eliminate the disease.
Scotland made period products free
As recently as November this year, Scotland became the first country in the world to announce that period products would be free and accessible to all its citizens. The Period Products (Free Provisions) (Scotland) Bill legally mandates that local authorities ensure that anyone who requires period products, regardless of socio-economic status, receive them at zero cost. As per the law, universal access to period products will also be made available in schools, colleges and universities. This, in fact, was already taking place but by enshrining it into the law, Scotland became the first country to protect this access.
Rewilding efforts bore fruit
2020 has seen a number of animal species stage a comeback and begin thriving in areas that would ordinarily be occupied by tourists or left to be polluted. The number of sea turtles in Tunisia is rising despite heavy fishing and pollution. Researchers in Antarctica spotted 55 endangered blue whales over a 23-day period compared to a single sighting during the same period in 2018. Reintroduction programmes have also seen Colorado wolves thrive and boost biodiversity in the region. An Australian sanctuary also successfully introduced 3,000 Tasmanian Devils. And even the fallen Notre Dame cathedral’s bee colonies housed in the woodwork of the structure in 2013 (to promote biodiversity) were found to be thriving despite the tragedy.
The number of female CEOS in Fortune 500 companies hit a record high
There is still some way to go before we achieve anything resembling equality at the highest echelons of business but there were some signs in 2020 that we are on the right path. The number of female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies reached 41 this year. Katharine Graham was the first woman to make the list in 1972 when she became CEO of The Washington Post. Since then, she has paved the path for many more including Best Buy’s Corie Barry, Upwork’s Hayden Brown and CVS Health Corp’s Karen Lynch.
Deaths caused by terrorism fell again
For the fifth consecutive year, the Global Terrorism Index has reported that deaths caused by terrorist activities had fallen from the previous year. The number of deaths caused by terrorism has now plummetted by 59 per cent from 2014 to 13,826. Research also indicates that terrorist activity has fallen across 103 countries in 2020 – the highest number of countries to record a year-on-year improvement since the GTI began gathering data. While terrorism remains a huge threat across several countries and continents, the latest trend is one to be cautiously optimistic about.
More headway in combating malaria and tuberculosis
While the world’s focus in 2020 has been on COVID-19, let us not forget that several countries continue to struggle under the weight of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. In November, the World Health Organisation announced that deaths by malaria have fallen to the lowest level ever recorded – a reduction of nearly 60 per cent in the last two decades. This roughly translates to 1.5 billion malaria cases and 7.6 million malaria deaths being averted between 2000 and 2019 – a remarkable achievement.
The WHO’s annual tuberculosis report also showed that between 2015 and 2019, global deaths by tuberculosis fell by 14 per cent. Advancements in tuberculosis treatments and improved access have enabled 60 million deaths to be averted since 2000.
Same-sex partnerships mark big wins
2020 saw several countries make significant progress in legalising same-sex marriage. The first-ever gay marriage in Northern Ireland happened in February. In May, Costa Rica became the first Central American nation to legalise same-sex marriage. Later in July, Thailand approved a draft for a Civil Partnership Bill that will, reportedly, also allow gay couples to adopt children. Following a difficult three-year legal battle, a gay couple in Croatia won the rights to become same-sex foster parents.
Pope Francis also made headlines earlier this year when he said, “Gay people are children of God and have a right to a family…What we have to create is a civil union law.”
A footballer convinced the UK govt to redouble efforts to fight child food poverty
Earlier this year, Manchester United Football Club’s star-striker Marcus Rashford successfully persuaded the UK government to pledge an additional 400 million pounds towards the provision of free school meals for children from families that are under financial hardship. Rashford used his huge online following to gather over a million signatures on a petition favouring free school means. Soon dozens of communities were in on the act delivering free meals to children and families during school holidays.
A COVID-19 vaccine arrived
Comfortably, the greatest developments of 2020, are the announcements made from several vaccine developers of breakthroughs in COVID-19 vaccine development. Pfizer was the first to announce a vaccine and was soon followed by Moderna. Meanwhile, other vaccines like those of Oxford University and Astra-Zeneca and Chinese pharma outfit Sinopharm are also, reportedly, close to receiving approval from several countries.
This is the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed. The previous record for vaccine development stood at four years which should give you an indication of the phenomenal achievement of the world’s leading vaccine researchers. As countries now plan and implement widespread immunisation programmes, the hope is that, by the end of 2021, we could finally be rid of COVID-19.