The standard “Stories to Watch in the Year Ahead” feature typically arrives in early January, or even late December, but this year has been special. It was obvious that the first few months of 2021 would be dominated by Covid, the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election and President Joe Biden’s first 100 days. With those issues now largely in the rearview mirror, if not completely gone, early May seems like a good time for my own version of which stories will matter most in 2021. Here are four, none of which is currently prominent in the news.
A possible Chinese move against Taiwan has received a lot of attention, but a Russian union with Belarus could be a greater danger. Belarus might even agree to such a proposition, so it would be hard for NATO or the U.S. to decry it as a coercive invasion. Yet such a Russian expansion could upend political stability in Europe.
If Russia and Belarus became a single political unit, there would be only a thin band of land, called the Suwalki Gap, connecting the Baltics to the rest of the European Union. Unfortunately, that same piece of territory would stand in the way of the new, larger Russia connecting with the now-cut off Russian region of Kaliningrad. Over the long term, could the Baltics maintain their independence? If not, the European Union would show it is entirely a toothless entity, unable to guarantee the sovereignty of its members.
Even if there were no formal political union between Russia and Belarus, the territorial continuity and integrity of the EU could soon be up for grabs. The EU has more at stake in an independent Belarus than it likes to admit.
A second major story is Covid in North Korea. Recent experience in India has shown that the situation can go very rapidly from moderate to severe. North Korea claims no recorded cases of coronavirus, but that is hardly believable; whether the issue is essential medical supplies or hospitalst capacity — or how about significant comorbidities from previous hunger problems? — there are few countries less deserving of trust. Sooner or later the more contagious strains will spread there, and it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un would allow much foreign assistance.
The Hermit Kingdom is very poorly understood by outsiders, but perhaps a major Covid-19 outbreak could shift around its politics and the relative power of its various factions.
The third story is perhaps the least prominent but the most consequential. There is a movement in Washington, with partial bipartisan support, to alter how science is funded in the U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has sponsored the Endless Frontier Act, which would create a new $100 billion science and technology fund to boost innovation and help the U.S. compete with China. The bill is currently stuck in committee. Along related lines, the Biden administration favors a new $6.5 billion fund devoted to innovation in biomedical research and modeled after DARPA, stressing researcher independence over peer review.
If these initiatives advance, 2021 could be remembered as the year when America rededicated itself to science. It could reap dividends from those decisions for decades to come, just as it is now benefiting from earlier investments in mRNA vaccines.
My last story is also in the realm of science: The chances are good that some of the anti-malarial vaccines in the works will pay off.
One recent study found 77% efficacy for a new anti-malarial vaccine, much higher than for previous efforts, and there may be mRNA anti-malaria vaccines coming as well. One estimate put the number of malaria deaths in 2019 at 409,000 worldwide, mostly under five years of age, with 229 million estimated cases. Shots in arms are still a ways off, but this could be the year when humanity started to conquer what is arguably the single greatest public-health scourge in all of history.
One common element of all these stories is that they are not primarily economic. The U.S. economy is expected to boom for the next two years, maybe longer, and so interest in the pronouncements of economists is fading. The main story will continue to be the race to vaccinate the world against Covid — and that effort will spur and in some cases overshadow big changes in both science and the geopolitical world order. — Bloomberg