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The 2020s: Decade of Challenge, Change … and COVID

Photo-illustration by Katrina Jesick Quinn/Special to the Eagle
AMERICA BY THE DECADES | National News Roundup

Welcome to the 2020s, a period of escalating global conflict, artificial intelligence, surging migration at the southern border and a pandemic of epic proportion.

But welcome, also, to a decade of scientific and technological breakthroughs, cultural and artistic accomplishments, and an opportunity to mark 250 years of our national experiment.

While a full picture of the decade’s legacy is not yet painted, one thing is for sure: the period will be remembered as a time of dramatic challenge and change, both at home and abroad.

Health and Medicine: The COVID-19 pandemic

As Americans awoke to a new year — and a new decade — on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, it had already been a month since “patient zero,” or the first individual documented with the novel coronavirus, had been identified in Wuhan, China.

COVID-19 quickly became a global phenomenon, spreading first to Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The first case in the U.S. was reported Jan. 21 in Washington state.

By the end of 2020, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming more than 350,000 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By April 2024, more than 1.1 million U.S. citizens had died of the disease.

The media reported grim daily statistics of infections, hospitalizations and deaths by state and county. Meanwhile, newspapers, television and other outlets featured stories of those who lost their lives to COVID and those they left behind: a 32-year-old engaged to be married, who died instead; a health care worker who contracted the disease herself; and a beloved grandmother who died alone.

The COVID-19 pandemic would cause disarray as federal and state regulations called for stay-at-home restrictions, shutdown of all but essential services, closure of schools and churches, and massive federal aid packages. The crisis pushed the medical system to the brink and sparked unprecedented disruptions of the global supply chain.

The pandemic triggered unemployment “on a scale not seen since the Great Depression,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor, with job losses disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minorities and low-income individuals. Among the industries most likely to struggle were hospitality, transportation, energy and brick-and-mortar retail.

Still, some enterprises thrived as Americans increasingly turned to technology to complete daily tasks. Among the top corporate winners were Alphabet, the parent company of Google; Tesla; Amazon; Apple; and Tencent, China’s largest internet provider, according to the Financial Times.

COVID brought an array of social changes. Many children “went” to school online. Old T-shirts and fabric swatches were repurposed as face masks. Post offices and grocery stores placed circles on the ground to keep patrons a safe 6 feet apart. Musical ensembles performed in a checkerboard array on Zoom, while online work meetings were often interrupted by children and pets.

The Trump administration launched a collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry — dubbed “Operation Warp Speed” — to accelerate the development and distribution of a vaccine. By December 2020, the “fastest vaccine in history,” according to UCLA Health, was approved. CDC statistics show more than 80% of the U.S. population has received the vaccine as of May 2024.

COVID may continue to be a serious health concern as new strains emerge. However, President Joe Biden officially ended the national emergency on April 10, 2023.

Society: The death of George Floyd and a summer of protest

Just as the nation was adjusting to a “new normal” of COVID lockdowns, masking and other restrictions, the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minn., drew thousands of Americans into the streets.

Floyd, 46, a Black man, died of suffocation May 25, 2020, after a white police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in April 2021 of second-degree unintentional murder and other charges, and sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

Concerns about police brutality, tactics and racial disparities in enforcement accelerated a “defund the police” movement, sparking protests around the nation and internationally. Large groups took to the streets in cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Phoenix; Denver; Louisville, Ky.; and Columbus, Ohio.

Closer to home, protests were held in more than 60 Pennsylvania communities, including Kittanning, New Castle and Pittsburgh. In Butler, eight people were arrested during a June 1, 2020, protest in Diamond Park.

While many demonstrations were characterized by speeches, chants and candlelight vigils, others became violent. Acts of vandalism, arson, looting and public disorder led to significant damage. Communities such as Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis reported property damage in the millions of dollars and arrests of hundreds of protesters.

Graphic images in the media depicted angry confrontations between rioters and police. In some locations, police responded to violent crowds in riot gear, using tear gas, smoke bombs and other tactics to quell the unrest. At least 12 states and Washington, D.C., activated the National Guard.

The death of Floyd and its aftermath renewed public initiatives to eliminate memorials associated with slavery. States removed statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis and renamed highways. Monuments to common soldiers of the Confederacy were removed from town squares, cemeteries and other public spaces in the North and South.

Confederates weren’t the only targets of the de-memorialization movement of the 2020s. A statue of President George Washington was toppled in June 2020 during a protest in Portland. Statues of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were vandalized, and more than three dozen memorials to Christopher Columbus were defaced or dismantled.

Pennsylvania’s memorials to Columbus have been part of this movement. In Pittsburgh, the city’s art commission, under former Mayor Bill Peduto, recommended the removal of a 13-foot statue of Columbus in Schenley Park. The statue was subsequently wrapped in plastic to hide it from public view. The proposal is still under litigation in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court as of April.

Government and Politics: The Jan. 6, 2021, riots

As summer protests faded, a new challenge lay on the horizon — a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.

The push for mail-in ballots spawned record voter participation in 2020, an increase of more than 12% over 2016. In fact, “a majority (69.4%) of voters cast ballots by a nontraditional method” in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Early election results on the evening of Nov. 3, 2020, showed incumbent President Donald Trump with a notable lead, but electoral maps quickly changed from red to blue when challenger Joe Biden surged to a victory in Pennsylvania and other “swing” states as mail-in ballots were counted.

Questions of election integrity were raised after the election. Trump called for a public demonstration of support in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. In his remarks, Trump suggested that his supporters “peacefully and patriotically” voice their objections at the U.S. Capitol, also saying “We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.”

As the crowd moved to the Capitol building, hundreds of individuals poured through the doors and members of Congress scrambled out of their chambers. One woman, Ashli Babbitt, was shot as she forcefully tried to enter the House chamber. She was one of four of the people involved in the riot who died.

Another fatality was Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who was injured during the riot and died the next day. Four other Capitol Police officers died by suicide in the following months.

By January 2024, more than 1,200 people from all 50 states had been charged in federal court, and more than 460 people had been sentenced to prison for their actions that day, according to a report by ABC News.

In September, Enrique Tarrio, a leader of the right-wing group the Proud Boys, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for seditious conspiracy related to the riot. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and one-time Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean were both sentenced to 18 years after being convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges.

The U.S. House of Representatives established a committee to investigate the incident. After multiple rounds of public hearings, the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack released a final report in December 2022 — “While it’s important that this report lays out what happened, it’s just as important to focus on how to make sure that January 6th was a one-time event — to identify the ongoing threats that could lead us down that dangerous path again — with hopes and humble prayers that the committee’s work is carried on through corrective action.”

Science: Renewed era of human space exploration

As conflict and controversy continue to simmer in politics and public spaces, the scientific community of the 2020s is turning its hopeful eyes to the skies.

SpaceX inaugurated the era of commercial space exploration in May 2020, when it became the first private company in the U.S. to launch humans into space.

Later that year, NASA launched the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity autonomous helicopter on July 30, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The spacecraft landed on Mars seven months later, on Feb. 18, 2021. Like their grandparents watched the moon landing in 1969, millions of Americans watched the event live. Ingenuity continued to collect data and samples until January 2024, completing 72 missions in all.

The Mars mission is a prelude to new initiatives. NASA hopes to return humans to the moon aboard Artemis III by 2026, according to its website. And that’s just the beginning of the “new space race” — the agency is also hoping to put a person on Mars as soon as the 2030s.

Scientists aren’t the only ones donning a spacesuit in the 2020s. Individuals looking for something new for their next vacation may like to consider opportunities in “space tourism.” For a cool $100,000-plus price tag, passengers can take trips to the stratosphere with companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Immigration: A surge at the southern border

While Americans might be leaving the country for exciting destinations, the 2020s have brought millions of others into the country — via the southern border.

Just how big is this surge? U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or U.S. Customs and Border Protection, reports that since 2020, around 2.5 million people have been released into the country after initial processing, with the expectation that they will attend immigration court proceedings to address their legal status.

During the same time period, the agency reports, around 2.8 million individuals have been removed or expelled due to legal or health-related concerns.

Not reflected in these numbers are the people who evade Border Patrol agents. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 606,131 of those at the southern border in 2022 and 670,674 in 2023. As of Jan. 31, 2024, the agency reported an average of 761 entering the country illegally each day.

Migrants come chiefly from Mexico and Central American nations, including Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

But the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that in 2023, for the first time, a majority of migrants came from other regions of the world, including Turkey, India and Africa.

A dramatic increase also has been seen in the number of migrants from China. In 2023, 37,000 Chinese citizens were apprehended as they attempted to cross the border. This number is 50 times more than in 2021 and makes Chinese migrants the fastest growing group, according to a February 2024 report by CBS News.

The deluge is setting records. In September 2023, MSN reported that 140,000 migrants were apprehended during the first 20 days of the month, averaging about 6,900 a day. The record was broken in December 2023, when about 250,000 asylum-seekers were encountered — the highest number in history for a single month.

Technology: Rise of artificial intelligence

The explosion of artificial intelligence applications in the areas of business, medicine, the arts and natural language processing may be one of the most substantial legacies of the 2020s.

Writing a thank-you note or planning a vacation has never been easier, thanks to natural language processing, an AI field that “trains” computers on the structure and use of human language. Large language models such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT can interpret input from a user and generate responses based on existing web content.

Because these models are trained on existing informational resources, however, they can include errors or biases. The programs will improve over time as they get more “practice.”

Nevertheless, AI is already having a dramatic analytical impact. In health care, AI has proven effective in predicting and diagnosing medical conditions, interpreting images and data, and managing patient interventions.

The 2020s also have been marked by the ingress of AI into creative works. AI platforms can write “original” music, poetry and screenplays; create art in an endless number of genres; and generate realistic photographs and video.

The practice has sparked calls for government regulation. Some argue that because AI platforms “learn” from existing creative works, their products violate copyright laws.

Additionally, the use of an individual’s voice or likeness has raised ethical questions. In January 2024, for example, explicit AI-generated images of singer Taylor Swift were seen by millions of social media users before they were removed by the platforms.

Economy: The cryptocurrency roller coaster

A record number of American adults now own cryptocurrency — about 40%, according to a 2024 report by Security.org. That figure is up from about 30% in 2023.

The dramatic change may be surprising, considering the volatile path for crypto in the 2020s.

In 2021, “crypto hackers” stole more than $600 million in cryptocurrency in “one of the largest cryptocurrency heists ever,” according to the BBC.

The following year, the industry experienced a period of dramatic decline — labeled a “crypto winter” by some analysts — as the Federal Reserve Board raised interest rates. Bitcoin and other leading cryptocurrencies lost more than 50% of their value, according to CNBC.

Prices rebounded in 2023, thanks to strengthened federal regulation and institutional investment.

The industry suffered a reputational setback when disgraced investment banker Sam Bankman-Fried was convicted of wire fraud and multiple counts of conspiracy as former CEO of crypto exchange company FTX.

Once ranked the 41st richest American by Forbes Magazine, Bankman-Fried was sentenced in March 2024 to 25 years in prison and ordered to pay $11 billion in restitution.

Analysts predict continued expansion of the crypto markets through the rest of the decade, fueled by increased adoption, regulation and innovation.

Sports: Saying goodbye to Kobe Bryant … and other sports icons

While sports can offer exciting diversion from the conflicts and controversies of politics, economics and culture wars, sports heroes can sometimes meet tragic ends.

NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, 41, died Jan. 26, 2020, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. The crash also claimed the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with seven others onboard the aircraft. The group was headed to a youth basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County, Calif.

The Pennsylvania native played 20 seasons in the NBA. A graduate of Lower Merion High School, outside of Philadelphia, Bryant was a five-time NBA champion, the 2008 league MVP and the all-time Lakers scoring leader.

In the days following his death, thousands of heartbroken fans laid flowers and shared memories outside the Staples Center and in other public spaces throughout the Los Angeles region.

During the 2020s, we’ve also said goodbye to other legendary sports figures, including home run king Hank Aaron (1934-2021), legendary NFL fullback Jim Brown (1936-2023), and beloved Pittsburgh Steelers running back and Penn State graduate Franco Harris (1950-2022).

Katrina Jesick Quinn teaches strategic communication and media at Slippery Rock University. She is an editor of “The Civil War Soldier and the Press” (Routledge 2023) and “Adventure Journalism in the Gilded Age” (2021).

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