Entering 2020, word that Team Russia had been banned from the upcoming Olympic Games over its state-sponsored doping program raised concerns about whether the country would — or should — be allowed to host matches for the European soccer championships scheduled for the summer.
By the time the Summer Olympics and Euro2020 would have begun, the controversy had vanished into the fog of a coronavirus pandemic that not only took all teams and athletes out of the two competitions, but left spectators and participants of mass gatherings worldwide stuck in isolation at home.
Even the most routine, habitual events fell like dominoes as governments imposed social-distancing measures in an effort to stem the outbreak.
In the workplace, in the stands, on the beach, and even at schools and houses of worship, China’s announcement of the outbreak on New Year’s Eve was the precursor of a year that just wasn’t there.
Since the dawn of man, individuals have found a feeling of shared identity in crowds. As sociologist Emile Durkheim defined the phenomenon more than a century ago, mass gatherings can be seen as a sacred ritual that allows individuals to unite in a group in “collective effervescence,” fulfilling the human need to belong.
Unfortunately, close physical proximity can also contribute to the spread of disease well beyond the gathering itself.
“People may come from many countries, mingle in the crowd, share their infections, and then take them home,” psychologists Nick Hopkins of the University of Dundee and Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland wrote in 2016 while discussing the emerging science of mass-gatherings medicine.
In the case of a highly transmissible, airborne contagion like the coronavirus, many governments, health officials, and event organizers concluded that large crowds and close contact were out, no matter how hallowed.
On March 11, as the number of coronavirus infections surged above 115,000 globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed deep concern at “the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction” and declared the outbreak a pandemic.
The very same day, the U.S. National Basketball Association — the world’s premier professional basketball league and one that attracts athletes from around the world — announced that it was suspending all games after a player tested positive. The announcement was followed the next day by the U.S. National Hockey League, another pool of international talent that suspended play.
On March 14 came the temporary suspension of the English Premier League, one of the world’s top soccer leagues. On March 17, Russia’s Football Union suspended all soccer competition in the country.
Then the oldest sporting competition of them all came to a screeching halt even as the Olympic torch relay was taking place. In late March, the Tokyo Games were postponed for 12 months “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
By April 1, the number of infections had exceeded the 1 million mark across 171 countries and six continents, killing more than 50,000 people, and the United States had overtaken China in terms of the number of infections recorded.
That month also came the first signs that the pandemic would disrupt one of the five pillars of Islam, with Saudi Arabia advising Muslims to put their hajj pilgrimage plans on hold.
By June the country — experiencing one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East — had announced that it was barring international travelers from performing the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, ultimately reducing crowd sizes at the July event from the usual 2 million pilgrims to around just 1,000.
No Place Like Home
The list of mass gatherings to fall to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 is a lengthy one, infiltrating every aspect of society.
The Running of the Bulls at the San Fermin Festival in northern Spain, a rite of passage for so many drunken tourists? Canceled, just like Germany’s Oktoberfest.
The Twenty20 World Cup? The West Indies will have to wait until next autumn to defend their title in India instead of Australia.
Norouz? This year Iranians mostly stayed home in quarantine to celebrate the first day of spring on the Persian calendar.
Women’s Day? Canceled in Kazakhstan.
The Eurovision Song Contest was not staged, nor were world tours by the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Justin Bieber. And international travel was marked by endless delays, acres of empty beaches, and eerily quiet historic city centers.
Many marathons, with their packed starts and crowds lining the route, were called off.
Gay-pride parades were left to march another day, or another year. And it was the same for military parades, for the most part. Victory Day celebrations were aborted this year in Kazakhstan and postponed in Russia, marking the first time in 25 years that the event wasn’t held on the day of the Allied victory in World War II. Bulgaria’s Armed Forces Day also fell victim to the pandemic.
Little To Celebrate
A number of prestigious events were not held this year since the Allies were fighting the Axis powers, including golf’s original championship, the British Open; the Wimbledon tennis tournament; and the Paris Airshow, which it has already been decided won’t get off the ground in early 2021.
There was little room for diplomacy, with the pandemic hindering efforts to reach a peace deal in Afghanistan, causing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to cancel his Balkan tour, and cutting short Bulgarian President Rumen Radev’s trip to Estonia for an investment forum.
And back in Russia, the biggest event on the country’s economic agenda — the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — was canceled in order to protect the health of Russian citizens and participants from abroad.
Missing In The World Today
The long-term effect the pandemic will ultimately have on the human psyche has been the subject of endless predictions that have changed as the coronavirus numbers rose exponentially. But the loss in terms of human life and experiences is already very palpable.
The global infection count is approaching 70 million, with more than 1.5 million deaths. And society’s inability to celebrate en masse has left a void of purpose and identity.
“These events provide an opportunity for social connection with a group of people who share a common purpose or set of values/interests,” said Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. “I think we can regain some of that through online events, but it is very hard to replace the needs fulfilled by mass gatherings.”
As the coronavirus was just taking over the international stage in April, Van Bavel was the lead author on an extensive research paper drawing on the expertise of more than 35 contributors with the intention of helping align human behavior with the recommendations of epidemiologists and public-health experts.
The effort, published on April 30 by Nature.com, focused on a broad range of topics relevant to pandemics, including fear, coping, the effects of social and cultural influences on behavior, and barriers to a unified response such as political polarization.
COVID — Don’t You Know It’s Christmas?
At year-end, the introduction of multiple vaccines developed and produced in multiple countries has raised hopes. But as the world eagerly awaits the chance to bid farewell to a year of gloom and isolation, fresh concerns have arisen, such as that developing nations will be left standing in line for the cure.
And while some events have found ways to continue — with attendance lacking or in small, socially distanced numbers — it still isn’t time to party.
As the end nears on a long year of quarantines and the denial of collective effervescence, cities around the world are vastly scaling down celebrations of the winter holidays including Christmas and the New Year — with some, such as Moscow and Budapest, scrapping them altogether.