This year-ender’s traditional title, Zeitgeist derives from the German words time (zeit) and spirit or ghost (geist). It is loosely used to reference the spirit that drives a historical period. And if we had to describe the spirit or ghost that moved 2020, it would unquestionably be a truly disturbing ghost, much like that other word with German roots, poltergeist.

More than any year in recent memory, this has been a year of unprecedented pain and challenge, of questions and uncertainty, of death and loss.

A fiery beginning

On 31st December 2019, the China office of the World Health Organization was informed of a worrying cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan province, all with uncertain causes. While this was the beginning of what was to become the story that would define the year, it was not the story that gripped the headlines in January of 2020.

The story that gripped the global headlines in January concerned the Australian bush fires that had begun in December and continued in January, turning skies orange as far as New Zealand. The fires would eventually burn 47 million acres, kill at least 43 people, and displace thousands. 

A scant two weeks later, on the 12th of January, Taal Volcano began spewing ash through Metro Manila, Calabarzon and as far north as the Ilocos region. The ashfall was so severe that the air was deemed dangerous to breathe and masks became necessary for anyone who needed to be outdoors. Schools and many offices were closed.

On 30th January, the Philippines confirmed its first COVID-19 case, a Chinese national. After a month with no new cases, the country confirmed its first local transmission on 7 March. On 9 March, a public health emergency was declared and by 16 March, the entire country was placed under a state of calamity and the entire island of Luzon was placed on a 2-week full lockdown (enhanced community quarantine). Of course, in March, we were all still hoping that this variant of SARS could be conquered as swiftly as the first one, with the summer months signaling an end to the spread of the virus.

We were wrong.

Fire, pestilence and rain

AsCOVID-19 continued to unleash nastier surprises, 2020 continued with a litany of unhappy news.

An African Swine Flu outbreak led to a state of calamity in Davao Occidental.

In the United States, a series of killings involving police sparked a series of demonstrations that spread to multiple countries. In local news, Philippine Fashion Week which had run a campaign based on #blacklivesmatter was roundly criticized for being tone-deaf to issues closer to home.

In August, the west coast of the United States erupted in flames and while California is no stranger to wildfires, five of the six worst fires in the state’s history occurred in 2020.

On 4 August, a fire in a Beirut warehouse with improperly stored ammonium nitrate caused an explosion that leveled the city’s port and was felt in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine and parts of Europe. The explosion claimed at least 190 people and injured about 6,500. The blast was detected as a magnitude 3.3 seismic event and is considered one of the most powerful artificial non-nuclear explosions in history.

In the Philippines, the year began with a potential water shortage and ended with a trio of some of the worst typhoons in the country’s history, with Ulysses causing floods reminiscent of Ondoy.

Scandals, surprises, endings and beginnings

In the UK, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Megan Markle, announced their intention to take a less active role in royal affairs.

At the 2020 Oscars, Parasite, a 2019 Korean dark comedy about the interactions between two families from opposite sides of the economic divide walked away with the most awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It was the first foreign language film to be named Best Picture by the Academy.

The Pentagon officially released videos of unidentified flying objects.

Pope Francis named Luis Antonio Tagle Carinal-Bishop, the highest title of a cardinal in the Catholic Church. Pope Frances also advised parents of LGBTQ children that God loves their children and came out in support of same sex civil unions.

The ABS-CBN franchise expired. Filipinos witnessed a rare annular solar eclipse and an even rarer great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a once-in-800 years event believed by some to have been the same event that guided toe wise men to Bethlehem.

Joe Biden was declared president-elect of the United States, which makes Kamala Harris the first female vice president of the country.

In 2020, we lost Kobe Bryant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Alex Trebek (host of Jeopardy), and Naya Rivera.

A hopeful ending

As the year draws to a close, we look back at a year and a world ravaged by probably the worst epidemic in modern history. As I write this, the Philippines has reported over 470,000 COVID-19 cases and over 9100 deaths. The global toll is much higher, over 81.2 million cases and over 1.77 million deaths.

However, we also end the year with the promise of the availability of multiple vaccines against COVID-19. The speed with which these vaccines were developed and became commercially available has been unprecedented and is reflective of what can be done when people and countries work together. At least two vaccines have received emergency approval by multiple countries and are being rolled out before the end of 2020.

Much of the good news for 2020 comes from the field of science and technology, not just with the COVID-19 vaccine but with such things as advances in sustainable energy that could avert our worsening global climate situation.

The more important part of the good news is in how we all changed. All things virtual received a boost from the enforced lockdown. Many people are now much more comfortable with technology. The boost to e-commerce, e-payments, e-banking and other online services are unlikely to unwind post the crisis. We rediscovered our communities. We spent more time together and alone. We rediscovered old passions and spent more time on our health. We rebuilt friendships across miles as we discovered the magic of electronic hangouts.

Most of all, we discovered what things are truly important. We explored the boundaries of the human spirit and found that they were vast. We discovered our own resilience and marveled at the grace and generosity of those willing to help in times of difficulty.

As we face 2021, we look forward to a new, new normal. It will be a world with the vaccine. We will once again be able to roam outside of our own homes. But we will always have 2020 to look back one, the terrible year that helped us discover our limits, our reach, our core, and our strengths.

Happy New Year to all!

Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at

Topics: Maya Baltazar Herrera , 2020 in review , top news 2020 , zeitgeist 2020
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