As the year 2021 draws to a close, it is only fitting that we take a look back on a year that was by any measure quite an eventful one. From several international events originally scheduled for 2020 being postponed to 2021, there was quite a lot happening throughout the year.

However, much like the preceding year, 2021 will be defined by the global pandemic and the emergence of several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as by the downright failure of public policy on a global level to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide.

Though vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to roll out by December 2020 and more than 12 billion vaccines have so far been produced — enough to vaccinate every adult in the world — 95 percent of adults in the low-income countries remain unvaccinated. According to the UK-based health data and analytics firm Airfinity, the world’s richest countries have bought 89 percent of all COVID-19 vaccines produced so far, leaving just 11 percent for the rest of the world to share.

Figures also show that for every adult in a low income country now being vaccinated, six adults in middle- and high-income countries are receiving a third booster shot. Even more morally and ethically repugnant is that over 100 million vials of vaccines, stockpiled by G20 nations for their own citizens, are to reach expiry date by end of the year and will have to be destroyed, even as 73 percent of frontline health workers in Africa remain to be vaccinated.

Although the inequity of vaccine distribution globally during 2021 will remain an indelible blight on our collective conscience, the world invariably moves on… As with every year, 2021 had its share of headline-grabbing tragedies, environmental catastrophes, and calamities, as well as deaths and destruction from natural and man-made causes. However, in these pages we have collated some of the more inspiring stories from 2021, as well as a few not so inspiring ones.

On Jan 1: African Continental Free Trade Area comes into effect, bringing together 54 of the 55 African Union nations, and forming the world’s largest free-trade area in terms of participating countries. The free-trade agreement is expected to boost intra-African trade by 52 percent by the end of 2022.

Jan 20: Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. becomes the 46th President of the United States, and, at age 79, is the oldest president to be inaugurated.

Jan 22: Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into effect. It is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use, of nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal being their total elimination. The treaty was approved in the UN General Assembly on 7 July, 2016, with 122 nations in favour, 1 against (Netherlands), and 1 official abstention (Singapore). The 69 nations that did not vote, included all of the nuclear weapon states and all NATO members except the Netherlands.

Feb 1: Myanmar’s popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi is removed from power by a military-led coup d’état, which leads to mass protests and widespread demonstrations across the country. In response, the military regime is accused of unleashing brutal repressive measures and human-rights violations on the protestors.

Feb 9: An uncrewed spacecraft by the United Arab Emirates Space Agency named Hope becomes the first Arab space mission to enter orbit around planet Mars. The Hope orbiter, which was launched on 19 July, 2020 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan with a Japanese rocket, made the UAE the first Arab country and the fifth in the world to successfully send a probe to Mars. Nine days later, the US Space Agency NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, with the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter drone, lands on Mars at Jezero Crater.

Feb 19: United States officially rejoins the Paris Agreement, 107 days after leaving it during the term in office of former US president Donald Trump. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is an international treaty signed by almost all countries in the world following the COP21 climate conference in Paris in 2015, that aims to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

Mar 23: Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, chartered and operated by Taiwanese container transportation and shipping company Evergreen Marine Corporation, runs aground and obstructs Egypt’s Suez Canal, the vital artery in global marine trade and transport. The ship was set free on March 29, but not before severely disrupting international trade.

Apr 15: In a controversial scientific breakthrough that sparked ethical debates, a team of scientists from the US, China and Spain announce the successful injection of human stem cells into monkeys to create chimera-embryos that are part human, part monkey. The early stage embryos survived for 20 days in laboratory dishes.

May 14: China becomes the fifth space agency to land a spacecraft on planet Mars, and the second to land a rover, when China National Space Administration’s Zhurong rover lands at Utopia Planitia on Mars. The four other space agencies that have landed spacecraft on the Red Planet include the US, Russia, European Union and India.

Jun 5: Finance ministers from the G7 nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — at their gathering in London endorse a global minimum corporate tax of at least 15 percent, on a country by country basis. The move is aimed at preventing tax avoidance, through profit shifting to lower tax destinations by some of the world’s biggest multinationals.

Jul 23–Aug 8: Japan hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, officially the XXXII Olympiad in modern Olympics history, the event was initially scheduled for summer of 2020 but postponed to a year later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite general improvements in the health situation, the event was largely held behind closed doors with no public spectators permitted due to the declaration of a state of emergency in the Greater Tokyo Area in response to the pandemic. The Games were the most expensive ever, with total spending of over $20 billion.

Aug 9: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body for assessing the science related to climate change in its Sixth Assessment Report, concluded that the effects of human-caused climate change are now “widespread, rapid, and intensifying. It noted that strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change. It added that while benefits for air quality would come quickly, by limiting climate change, it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize.

Aug 24–Sep 5: Sixteen days after the end of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the city inaugurated the 2020 Summer Paralympics. The 16th Summer Paralympics were also originally scheduled for summer of 2020, but as with the Summer Olympics, the event was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Also, much like the Summer Olympics, the Paralympics were also largely held behind closed doors with no outside spectators due to a state of emergency in the Greater Tokyo Area and other prefectures.

Aug 30: The UN Environment Programme announces that leaded petrol in road vehicles has been phased out globally, a hundred years after its introduction led to the contamination of air, dust, soil, drinking water and food crops around the world. Leaded petrol has been identified as a major risk factor in leading to heart diseases, stroke and cancer, as well as impacting development of human brain, especially among children. The ban of leaded petrol is projected to prevent more than 1.2 million prematures per year around the world, and save the global economy more than US$2.4 trillion.

Sep 16: Space X, the privately funded American aerospace company found by entrepreneur Elon Musk, launches Inspiration4, the first-ever all-civilian spaceflight, carrying a four-person crew on a three-day orbit above Earth at an altitude of around 585km, which was higher than the International Space Station orbit of about 400km above Earth.

Oct 1: Ongoing 2020 World Expo, being hosted by Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was initially slated to begin in Oct 2020 but was postponed due to the prevailing COVID-19 situation last year. The event, which is scheduled to end on 31 March 2022, is being held on a 438 hectare area between the UAE cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, under the theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’. The main Expo 2020 is organized around a central plaza, called Al Wasl, enclosed by three large thematic districts based on the three sub-themes of expo — Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.

Oct 3: Pandora Papers are released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) ,revealing the shadowy offshore financial system that benefits the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of everyone else. The nearly 12 million confidential records obtained by ICIJ from offices of 14 financial service providers including law firms, wealth management advisors and corporate formation agencies, discloses data on more than 27,000 companies and 29,000 so-called ultimate beneficial owners — the real owners of shell companies that includes current and former world leaders, politicians, public officials and celebrities.

Oct 6: Nearly 125 years after the discovery of the malaria parasite in 1897, the World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed the first vaccine against malaria, with the widespread use of the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission. Malaria remains a primary cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 260 000 African children under the age of five die from malaria annually. Using the new vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.

Oct 31– Nov 13: United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 is held in the city of Glasgow, in Scotland, United Kingdom. As with other international events initially scheduled for 2020, the COP26 was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic last year. At the conclusion of the conference, world leaders agreed to a climate deal that includes a “phasedown” of unabated coal power, a 30 percent cut in methane emissions by 2030, plans for a halt to deforestation by 2030, and increased financial support for developing countries.

Nov 26: World Health Organization (WHO) convenes an emergency meeting in Geneva amid concerns over Omicron, a highly mutated variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. First identified in South Africa, the variant appears to be more infectious than Delta, but also luckily more milder and less lethal, with fewer people needing hospital treatment than with other recent variants of the virus.

Dec 9–10: The United States hosts a virtual ‘Summit for Democracy’ to ‘renew democracy at home, and confront autocracies abroad’. Invited to the online summit were leaders or their representatives from over 110 countries worldwide to discuss and debate the three themes of defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and advancing respect for human rights.

Dec 24: The US space agency NASA, the European Space Agency,ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency, along with the US-based Space Telescope Science Institute, launch the James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST) launched in 1990. Through numerous astronomical discoveries made during its three decades in space, the HST fundamentally changed our perception of the universe. The newly launched James Webb telescope is much more sophisticated than HST and will be positioned in an orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth; by contrast, the HST orbit was 547 kilometers above Earth.

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