News that shaped 2016: Trump, Brexit, Russia’s Olympic ban & more
Zika virus outbreak
Zika has been known about for almost seven decades, so when the World Health Organization declared it a "public health emergency of international concern" in February, the most alarming aspect was just how little was known about the disease, which was spreading “explosively” through the world.
For decades, it had been regarded as a rare tropical disease present in some countries in Africa and southeast Asia. But the fever traveled to Brazil sometime in 2013, where it gradually spread, before public health officials began noticing that many patients suffering from headaches, a fever and a rash tested negative for other common diseases such as dengue fever.
But the worst has begun already in 2015, when an abnormally high number of babies born suffering from microcephaly began to emerge. More than 2,200 cases have been recorded in Brazil alone, though the numbers are likely to go much higher, and many fetuses in infected mothers are likely to suffer some less visible but also damaging consequences of the infection. For adults, millions of whom have been infected – most without symptoms – Guillain-Barre syndrome, a debilitating neurological disorder, remains a risk.
Although officials said no visitors were infected with the Zika virus during the 2016 Rio Olympics, the disease still managed to dent tourism in the country.
Zika also caused panic in the US after the first virus-related cases were registered there. Tourists were warned to “think twice” before visiting Florida’s Disneyworld because of an “increased” risk of contracting the virus. US federal authorities also said that pregnant women and their partners should avoid Miami Beach – one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US – after mosquitoes in the area were found to transmit the virus.
The US Food and Drug Administration even approved genetically engineered mosquitoes to combat the virus and demanded that all blood donations be tested for Zika. The US eventually tried too hard to fight the virus, as anti-Zika spraying in South Carolina resulted in unexpected deaths of millions of honeybees.
In November, the WHO declared that the Zika virus was no longer a worldwide emergency, though as it continues to find new hosts all over the world, it is unlikely to be completely eliminated in the coming years, even with multiple vaccines in development.
Russia’s Olympic ban
The recent series of allegations of systemic doping within Russia started with a German documentary in 2014, but over the past year, the innuendo of allegations has been replaced with the hammer of punishment that has struck again and again.
July’s report by WADA’s Richard McLaren accused Russia of operating a sample-tampering system used to clear hundreds of doped athletes for at least half a decade.
The system was purportedly used even at major events, including the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and was allegedly approved at a ministerial level.
The results meant that more than a quarter of Russia’s Olympic team – mostly track & field athletes – did not travel to the Rio Olympics, mostly due to team, not individual, violations. Weeks later, all Russian Paralympians were banned from their edition of the Games, and the next Winter Paralympics. All through the year, Russian athletes have had their medals from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 taken away.
In December, McLaren published the second part of his report, accusing more than 1,000 additional athletes of participating in the doping program, and leading to the removal of the bobsleigh and skeleton world championships from Sochi, with a similar threat hanging over other sports events scheduled to take place in Russia.
Turkey: Coup and crackdown
With Turkey’s history of military coups, and growing tension over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strengthening grip on power inside the country, the failed attempt July 15 was not a historical anomaly, but it is still shocking to think that the elected leader of a democratic state was minutes away from being seized, or possibly killed by special forces sent by the plotters.
The coup fell apart quickly. Not only did the plotters fail to capture their adversary, but Erdogan retained control of the airwaves, and managed to rally his supporters onto the streets.
Much of the army also remained loyal to the government, as did many of the soldiers, who refused to fire their weapons.
The aftermath brought the Turkish leader sympathy from his political opponents and the international community, patching up the frayed relationship with Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin was one of the first to support Erdogan while shots were still being fired, and the outcome was uncertain. But there is concern over the scale of the retribution – more than 100,000 officials have been purged, and more than 38,000 arrested – as well as the repressive laws passed, which could undermine Turkish democracy in the long run. The crackdown also seriously complicated Turkey’s relations with the EU.
Some human rights organizations also accused the Turkish government of numerous human rights violations committed during the post-coup crackdown. Amnesty International said in its report in July that many people in Turkey were “not only … arbitrarily held and denied their trial rights, but, in some cases, [were] … also mistreated and tortured in detention.”
Turkey was also accused of suppressing opposition and free speech under the disguise of a crackdown on coup sympathizers. Dozens of journalists were arrested and several media outlets were closed following the coup in Turkey, sparking concerns in Europe.
Some 170 newspapers, magazines, TV stations and news agencies have been closed, leaving 2,500 journalists unemployed, according to Turkey's association of journalists. In early November, Turkish authorities arrested the editor-in-chief of the independent Cumhuriyet newspaper and issued arrest orders for at least 13 other employees and executives. The move sparked concern from Ankara's EU partners, who said that European standards apparently have no importance for Turkey.
Brussels and Nice terrorist attacks
The Paris attacks in November 2015 appeared to be a red line for Islamic terrorism in Europe – an atrocity that wouldn’t be allowed to happen again, with the collective might of the continent’s security services focusing their efforts on rooting out potential attackers.
After all, Brussels was already known as Europe’s prime terrorist hub, and all the perpetrators in the bombings of the city international airport and Maalbeek station had direct links to the Paris attacks, as well as a host of suspicious markers – unexplained visits to Syria, extensive criminal records and ties with radical preachers. Nonetheless, despite having the suspects in their sights, the security services didn’t get them in time and 32 victims died, with dozens more injured.
The Nice truck attack in July was even more traumatic, with the realization of how much damage could be done to everyday targets – 86 victims died, and more than 400 were hospitalized – and the extent of desensitization the terrorists were capable of.
French authorities believe that half a dozen people knew about the planned massacre, and none were repulsed enough by the horror and sheer inhumanity of the planned carnage, instead egging on the perpetrator.
Meanwhile, France’s political landscape appears to have been irrevocably changed, as the country, still living in a state of emergency, rolls towards next year’s election.
Trump’s electoral victory
However familiar it should now seem, the thought that Donald Trump will be on January 20 the incoming president of the United States remains hard to accept as reality – for his supporters and detractors alike. For the entirety of time between he announced his nomination in June 2015, to about an hour before his victory speech, he was never the frontrunner for the White House.
Even disregarding his Overton window-busting positions and persona and Cinderella run for the Oval Office, in dry historical terms Trump is unique. There has never been a US president who held no political or military office prior to their election, and neither has a billionaire ever been chosen to lead the country.
But what makes Trump’s story truly fascinating is not that he is an outlier as an individual, but that with the sheer force of his personality he has managed to ride and shape the zeitgeist. From globalization, to identity, to questions of what the new international world order should be, Trump is nothing if not relevant.
His unconventional cabinet picks, and first steps while in power also suggest that he will be shaping the most unexpected news developments next year, like he was a year ago, when he was slaying the Republican Party’s favored candidates. Momentum – his fuel – is still with Donald Trump, and however the world feels about him, it is not bored.
While Brexit, the landmark decision by the UK to leave the European Union, has been superficially superseded by Trump, it is future history books that will decide which of these is the more influential story of 2016.
The then-British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced a referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union in February, although it was a part of his election bid initially voiced in 2012.
Following the announcement, the UK witnessed a fierce struggle between the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigners that divided both British society and the media. According to a study conducted by the Reuters Institute, the British media supported the idea of Brexit in the first two months of the referendum campaign.
However, positions varied greatly between newspapers. The Daily Mail included the most pro-Leave articles followed by The Daily Express, The Daily Star, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, while the newspapers including the most pro-Remain articles were, in order, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Financial Times. The Daily Mail and the Sun were then accused of helping swing public opinion toward Brexit.
Meanwhile, on social media, Brexit supporters had a more powerful and emotional message and were able to outmuscle their rivals with more vocal and active supporters across almost all social media platforms.
However, the victory of the “Vote Leave” supporters in the referendum on June 23, 2016, came as a major surprise for the EU, the UK, the “Remain” campaigners and even for the Brexit advocates themselves. Results of the vote were shocking for many in the UK. Cameron resigned soon after the referendum, while thousands of people hit the streets of the British capital to pressure politicians to keep the UK in the EU.
However, new Prime Minister Theresa May immediately made it clear that she intends to proceed with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and there will be no attempts to stay in the union. “Because Brexit means Brexit, and we're going to make a success of it,” she said in July.
More than six months after the vote, Brexit still dominates British politics and its repercussions are being felt both in Europe and around the world. Meanwhile, its future remains uncertain, as the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has not been officially started yet.