"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer
2020 was a hell of a year.
And there is nothing wrong with being eager for 2020 to end. After all, the start of a new year brings the comforting thought of rebirth, a clean slate, fresh opportunity.
But January 1, 2021 will also just be the day after December 31, 2020, and it will be less of a new start and more of a continuation: the pandemic will still be raging, racism and xenophobia will still plague our society, the climate catastrophe will grow nearer, the longing for authoritarianism will continue to deepen, the deluge of mis/disinformation will continue, the rich will get richer while the poor get poorer, and our political institutions will continue struggling to manage these crises. Unfortunately, it has not only been the ardent pessimists who have spent the waning weeks of 2020 warning that there are dark days (or “our darkest days”) ahead. And though those ominous comments on darkness have been primarily about COVID-19, at this point the pandemic has become shorthand not only for the virus but for all of the other crises (economic fallout, political division) that are bound up with the pandemic.
Granted, there are still some reasons for guarded optimism about 2021: vaccines are now available (and though it will take many months for vaccination to roll out) which could see us emerging from the pandemic’s shadow by the summer; and while it remains to be seen how effectively Biden will respond to the challenges of the moment, the end of the Trump presidency is certainly worth celebrating.
Nevertheless, it’s worth being honest with ourselves: 2021 is going to get off to a really bad start, and even if everything goes well much of the year will be spent processing everything that went wrong in 2020. Ultimately, the shape that 2021 takes will have a lot to do with the degree to which we are able to learn from 2020. So, in that spirit, here are some lessons we should keep in mind as we reflect on a hell of year…
Those who don’t take the “worst case scenario” seriously are doomed to experience it
At a daily briefing from the White House’s coronavirus task force, held on March 31, a grim warning was issued: the US could likely expect to experience 100,000 deaths, and that number could get as high as 240,000. Speaking at that daily briefing, Trump warned “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. This is going to be one of the roughest two or three weeks we’ve ever had in our country. We’re going to lose thousands of people.” Trump was roundly praised for the new tone he had taken as he delivered those words, his early bombast seemed chastened, many in the media commented that the gravity of the situation was finally getting through to him. Granted, when that daily briefing was held the death toll in the US had recently passed 4,000 and the number of confirmed cases was at more than 200,000.
At the end of March, the idea of 240,000 deaths seemed unimaginable. Near the end of May, as the US neared 100,000 deaths, the New York Times devoted its entire front page to the names of the dead and described it as “an incalculable loss.”
But by halfway through December more than 300,000 have died, as of this writing the number sits at 323,002 (and by the time you read this, that number will be depressingly higher). The number of daily deaths so routinely exceeds 2,000 as to no longer seem shocking. And the daily number of new cases is consistently greater than the total number of confirmed cases there were at the end of March. Alas, as the US heads towards Christmas there is little evidence that these dangerous trends are about to alter for the better anytime in the immediate future.
Hoping that the “worst case scenario” won’t unfold, is no substitute for taking suitable action to ensure that the “worst case scenario” won’t unfold. At the end of March, as bad as the situation already was, there was still the opportunity to get the virus under control. The number of cases was still low, hospitals were not yet overwhelmed, and the novelty of the virus meant that people were still paying attention to it. Had the federal government (in coordination with the states) taken aggressive action (paying people to stay home in April, using this time to dramatically ramp up PPE production, and testing capacity) there is a decent chance that the virus’s rapid spread could have been quashed. Of course, that isn’t what happened. An admission of how bad things could get was confused for an actual plan. And this tendency, to vaguely acknowledge the dangers but fail to adequately prepare, has been a repeated feature of this pandemic. After all, there were warnings in the spring that a dangerous surge (another wave) would likely occur in the late fall/early winter. But not nearly enough was done to prepare for it. Of course, had enough been done to head off the calamity, there would certainly be some who would claim that those earlier warnings had been overblown—an instance of the Cassandra Conundrum—but it would be wonderful to be in a scenario where the biggest debate was over how hyperbolic those sounding the alarm had been.
When considering crises it is rarely accurate to claim “nobody could have seen this coming.” Yet it must also be acknowledged that the US has blown past March’s “worst case scenario.” And according to some warnings, the US may be on track for more than 500,000 deaths. There was time to take the necessary steps to prevent 240,000 deaths—but the opportunity was squandered. There is currently the time to take the necessary steps to prevent 500,000 deaths—and this opportunity is also being squandered.
2020 has made it clear that it isn’t sufficient to acknowledge the “worst case scenario,” you also have to do enough to prevent it.
The most important technologies are not always the high-tech ones
Though 2020 was a rather rough year for Google and Facebook (even as they continued raking in billions), for the most part the year still demonstrated the US’s general societal bias towards praising (and believing in) high technology as a savior. In 2019 “Zoom” was not a word that meant much to most people, but by the end of 2020 “Zoom” has become a common reference to a particular tech company, a generic term for describing all online video conferencing platforms, a verb to describe what became a daily feature of many people’s lives, and it has also given rise to other descriptors (such as “Zoom fatigue”) which would not have made sense sixteen months ago. And Zoom is hardly the only digital platform that people found themselves increasingly reliant on for everything from work to school to basic communication. Previously many people may have joked that they relied on social media to stay in touch with friends and family, but during 2020 we became even more reliant on the platforms that allowed us to stay in touch while staying away from each other Of course, though Zoom provided a workaround for many people in many situations, it remains rather odd to refer to Zoom as a savior. However, if you’re searching for the fruit of techno-science that deserves to be referred to with such praise, look no further than the various COVID-19 vaccines that are starting to be rolled out as 2020 comes to a conclusion.
And yet if you’re looking for the most important technology of 2020, a very strong case could be made for something that is considerably less high-tech, namely: the humble facemask.
Facemasks aren’t the pinnacle of high-tech trends, sure there are some fancy variants, but in 2020 a lot of good was accomplished by people relying on these simple things. Indeed, things could likely have been significantly better if more people had just been willing to consistently (and correctly) wear masks. Sixteen months ago, most people would not have known what “Zoom” referred to, and sixteen months ago most people would have looked at you skeptically if you asked them how often they wore a facemask while going to the bank. Zoom helped us manage the shift to doing ever more things online, the vaccines will be integral for getting us back to “normal,” but facemasks have been the key technology of everyday life throughout this crisis.
It may well be that adoration for high-tech solutions, and desire for a high-tech savior, contributed to a situation wherein simple steps were overlooked as people placed their hopes in a high-tech panacea. As 2020 comes to a close there are many reasons to be quite guardedly excited about the efficacy and potential of the vaccines that are being rolled out, but even on the more optimistic timetables for vaccine rollout it will still be many months before a sizable majority has been vaccinated. And as we wait for our turn in that vaccine rollout, we will still find ourselves reliant on a simple technology to help keep us and others safe: facemasks.
The most important technology of 2020? It’s right in front of your eyes, covering your nose and mouth.
Our attention span falters in a long crisis
When a disaster occurs, especially one that generates stark images of burning hillsides or flooded neighborhoods, attention gets focused on the event. Newscasters report from the frontlines, political figures make emergency trips to impacted communities, and viral videos circulate wherein individuals film their escape along a blazing highway. Of course, anyone unlucky enough to have lived through one of these disasters knows that the problems persist long after Anderson Cooper leaves. Images of a devastated cityscape are compelling, but attention quickly moves on to the next thing. And this has been particularly challenging for the pandemic for several reasons: firstly, because the pandemic is not a contained series of discrete events striking a particular region; secondly, because images of body bags and hospitals do not pack quite the same wallop as iconic images of wildfires or floods; thirdly, because the pandemic drags on and on and on and on. One of the major problems with the pandemic is that it requires a high degree of sustained attention, and too many people just seem unwilling to give it that. As 2020 comes to a close the pandemic has reached a particularly terrifying stage, but people are bored with it.
One hundred thousand deaths was a major event, but three hundred thousand deaths was just another Monday.
Lest there be any doubt, there were many things that deserved attention in 2020. And it could be a challenge to pay attention to all of the things that deserved attention in 2020. But one of the things that has contributed to the pandemic getting worse and worse, was that once it lost its novelty, it stopped commanding quite as much attention. Certainly, people are aware that it’s still happening, but somehow at the moment when the pandemic is reaching new deadly peaks it is fading more and more into the background. With the danger being that this crisis thrives in a situation where people stop paying attention, stop taking necessary precautions, and start believing that it’s almost over. In this one can draw a disturbing parallel to climate change (that existential crisis that has received considerably less attention this year), when the disaster unfolds slowly many people come steadily become numbed to the experience of living amidst a disaster.
It isn’t particularly enjoyable to spend a significant amount of your time paying attention to the pandemic. But just because we’re “over it” does not mean that it is over.
We’re all in this together…and we despise each other
In most disaster films there is a moment when the people begin to turn on each other. Echoing a Hobbesian view of humanity, these films treat civilization as the only thing that is keeping humans from turning bestial, and when civilization is shaken people therefore go wild. Those who study disasters have been trying to push back on this reactionary viewpoint for quite some time. When disaster strikes, mutual aid and solidarity are generally what emerges—people come together, people help one another. Despite the cultural fixation on “doomsday preppers” and other antisocial folks preparing for the end of days, if you want to get through a time of crisis it’s much better to unite with your neighbors than it is to turn on them. Community is what gets through a crisis. What’s more, this definition of “neighbor” and “community” isn’t isolated to the people who literally live down the street for you—it can be extended to a national and international sense of solidarity in the face of a massive challenge.
To get through a crisis social cohesion is necessary, and in 2020 that social cohesion has barely held. Indeed, it has ruptured in many places.
On the most obvious level, one of the challenges that social cohesion has faced in the midst of the pandemic is that it is hard to literally come together with people when halting the spread of the virus necessitates that we stay apart. People did still find ways to unite, but the simple truth is that the pandemic made this more difficult. Yet the greatest challenge to social cohesion in 2020 wasn’t really the pandemic, but the larger political landscape. That the pandemic was taking place as the US was in the midst of a very contentious election, meant that it was difficult to bring people together while the election sought to drive people apart. And of course, it certainly did not help that the man running for re-election spent much of the year downplaying the virus (even after he was struck by it). Asking people to wear masks, asking people to avoid in person gatherings, asking people to think about vulnerable people in their lives and communities—is all quite difficult when many people have been convinced that wearing a mask is a political statement, and that the whole virus is a media hoax designed to cost Trump the election. Wearing a mask is not only about keeping an individual safe, it is also about keeping other people safe from that individual (who may be infected and not know it), but why wear a mask when you don’t give a damn about other people? These dangers spill into many other areas ranging from the elevation of misinformation, to balking at government assistance that might help “them,” to pretending that the pandemic is no worse than the flu. A crisis like a pandemic is a reminder that “we’re all in this together,” but in 2020 too many people rejected the idea that they were part of a “we.”
That a country has endured for decades, is at least in part a testament to its ability to overcome significant crises. And when you look at those crises, time and time again, you will see the importance that social cohesion plays in getting through them. A lack of social cohesion has made this pandemic even worse, and this breakdown in basic empathy and solidarity does not bode well for the difficult months ahead.
When disaster strikes, humans do not turn into beasts. But when disaster strikes and nefarious propaganda and misinformation networks work overtime to stir up hatred…it does not go well.
Our institutions are pretty frail
In the final months of 2020, a fair amount of attention was devoted to the US’s institutions, with the emphasis being on those that were associated with elections (in one way or another). As Trump continued (and continues) to contest the results of an election that he lost, praise has been directed at the degree to which “our institutions held.” The courts struck down frivolous fantastical lawsuits, electors were not intimidated, Republican secretaries of state and governors accepted the decision of voters in their states, and the Supreme Court refused to even hear a case that sought to overturn the election. Of course, Republicans in the House and the Senate refused (and many still refuse) to accept the results as legitimate, and there will likely be bumps when Congress meets to certify the election results in early January—but the “institutions” held! Didn’t they?
There is no doubt that it is a good thing that these various institutions prevented Trump’s coup-esque effort, but we should admit that many of these same institutions failed when it came to the pandemic. Governors prioritized political loyalty over human lives, courts struck down regulations meant to stop the spread of the virus, the full weight of the federal government was not mobilized to produce PPE, cities and states were forced to compete for limited supplies, and a health crisis spiraled into an economic crisis because Congress refused to provide regular people with the support they needed. As the pandemic drags on, it is vital to remember that things did not have to play out the way they did. And in trying to make sense of why things played out the way they did, it is important to understand that it is to a considerable extent a story about institutional failure. To be clear, many other countries have also mismanaged the pandemic (though few have mismanaged it quite as poorly), but many countries have handled it remarkably well. And one of the things that distinguishes the reactions among countries is the degree to which their institutions rose to the challenge. In the US, people could have been paid to stay home, businesses could have been paid to stay closed, unemployment insurance could have been raised to meet people’s needs, healthcare could have been provided for all, schools (of all levels) could have been given the funds they needed over the summer to ensure that they would be ready for the fall, housing and healthcare could have been guaranteed, and a massive public information campaign (instead of conspiratorial tweets) could have been conducted to keep people informed about the importance of everything from wearing a mask to vaccines.
When mismanaged, crises and disasters have a tendency to mutate into further problems; this is how a health crisis becomes an economic crisis, or how a technological failure becomes a political crisis – what is necessary to keep the initial crisis from spiraling into multiple problems is the early intervention of institutions. This is not to belittle the importance of community groups and the vital function of mutual aid, but when a 100-year storm makes landfall or a historic pandemic spreads over an entire country…those are situations that require a larger response. Furthermore, that response is needed quickly, and that response needs to be coordinated. The US government prides itself on the technical superiority and might of its armed forces, but in 2020 the US was brought low not by an invasion but by the government’s failure to take sufficient action to contain a virus.
An election in which an unprecedented number voted in the midst of a pandemic, and in which a coup is thwarted is a tale of institutional success. But a year in which a country cannot provide for people in the midst of a historic pandemic, and cannot prevent the calamitous late fall wave (that was always expected), is a tale of institutional failure.
We aren’t particularly good at learning from history
There are plenty of sayings about the dangers of failing to learn from history, but in 2020 we saw many of those dangers play out in real time. Unfortunately, this was a year in which we not only saw an inability to learn from the distant past, but the inability to learn from what had happened a couple of months before.
While history does not literally repeat itself, the various crises that shook 2020 still have important similarities with previous events. This was not the first year that there was a dangerous virus, this was not the first year that a coordinated response was needed to manage the aforementioned virus, this was not the first year that effective messaging was needed to get people to understand the dangers, and as the year comes to a close this is not the first year that a plan is needed so that a vaccine can be rolled out to large numbers of people. Many of the challenges we have faced in 2020 have historical precedents. On an individual level we could have learned that personal decisions really are important for keeping people safe—and while such small scale choices are not an ultimate solution, they can still be important. While on a societal level we could have learned that serious government intervention is necessary, and that doing too little only results in matters getting worse. Unfortunately, the sorry state of the pandemic in 2020, is a testament to a failure to learn from past crises of various sorts.
Yet what is perhaps more disconcerting, is that in 2020 we not only failed to learn from the distant past, we failed to learn from the recent past. There were lessons that could have been taken from the spring (such as the importance of a sizable relief bill), though those lessons were largely not learned. Given the dire situation in the spring, and the numerous warnings stating that the virus would surge again in the late fall/early winter, the summer was a perfect time to apply the spring’s lessons. Schools could have used the summer to develop sufficient strategies, businesses could have modified their practices (with the assurances of enough support), an information campaign could have kept people informed, PPE supply and contact tracing capacity could have been ramped up, and financial support to individuals could have been extended to keep people afloat in the midst of a historic crisis not of their own making – it was clear that such steps were necessary simply from the rather recent history of March and April. But the summer was not spent applying the lessons of the spring, and as a result we entered the fall and winter having learned too little.
The sad truth is that it isn’t that difficult to learn from the past. It is not as though history jealously guards its secrets and refuses to share them. People just have to be willing to learn, even when those lessons can be unpleasant.
2020 was a year in which too many people refused to learn from the past.
So, will we learn from 2020 in 2021?
We had better.