The end of the year is conventionally a time of reflection, taking stock and recalibration for a fresh start; but, then again, New Year’s traditions also include large parties, midnight kisses and drunken renditions of Auld Lang Syne in a crowded Times Square. I think it’s fair to say that most of us are just looking forward to putting this brutal year behind us.
When I look back and contemplate 2020 my thoughts tend to fall, dichotomously, into Before and After.
Before March we went out. We spent time with other people, at work and at play; and, we greeted one another warmly – a handshake, a hug…at least we were able to exchange a kind smile. Often times we were not doing anything terribly special, we were just hanging out, participating in an activity, going to an event or getting better at a hobby. At the end of a long week we might meet up to decompress after work, maybe grab a table for a shared meal, a bottle of wine, some tight conversation –
There was no way to have known how everything would change.
There was no glimmer that the year was about to turn to dust in our hands.
…that our favorite places would shut down
…that schooling would become virtual
…that sickness and loss would overtake us
…that staying at home could become so exhausting
…that sometimes just getting through the day would feel like infinite
The simple indulgences before COVID became wistful memories thereafter:
Meeting up at a crowded venue
- to stand hip-to-hip unselfconsciously
and laugh out loud with no thought of covering our mouths
to soak in the hot breath buzz of the city at night
or revel in a celebratory sport -
to know health without anxiety
and travel through our days and nights unencumbered
As 2020 comes to a close, it’s tempting to believe our lives will magically right themselves on New Year’s Eve when the clock strikes midnight. There is, after all, reason to be hopeful – a new administration will take office in Washington and vaccines are rolling out globally.
But, of course, life will not suddenly return to pre-COVID ‘normality’. We have a tough winter ahead as we struggle to arrest a highly transmissible COVID variant and look for sound ways to address the pandemic’s still-rippling impact to the economy, employment, public health and food systems. With much of the world still in lock-down, a grand new year’s celebration is likely to be a super-spreader situation; and, making resolutions sounds like a cruel joke.
So, what’s a survivor of 2020 to do come New Year’s Eve?
Aligning with dreams of new beginnings, I would ask, wouldn’t this be a golden opportunity to start making better choices? No judgement, that’s not the idea. Regardless of how enlightened any of us may or may not be, the fact is - we are all here now at this moment in time where we can see that societally, we need to do better.
If there is a single truth that the pandemic has illuminated it is that we are a global community – we are interconnected - a single eco-system impacted by cascading physical and social forces and subject to systemic feedback loops. The scale of the current crisis and the corresponding response it demands speaks to the need for a new ethos of global civics. Our primary directive must change from isolated self-interest to collectively working together for mutual benefit. International cooperation is the way in which vaccines have been so quickly developed. Cooperation and solidarity are critical now, even once this pandemic recedes, for climate change, water scarcity, poverty, education and healthcare.
We have also learned that we are vulnerable. The virus spread quickly, without respect for national borders, ethnicity, religion or wealth. The pandemic reflects the delicate balance of our eco-system. Pandemics will likely occur again and there are other threats, such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity, that are already here with true crisis in wait, just on the horizon. We cannot be content to return to old ways. The future for each of us, in all nations and the planet as well, depends on the decisions we make now. We must evolve - become inclusive, intersectional, sustainable and resilient.
A further truth is that we are not all equal. Systemic racism, sexism and classism are profoundly oppressive. These long-standing inequities have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. The gap between rich and poor has substantially widened and the costs of COVID-19 are being disproportionately borne by minority, lower-income populations – in terms of health risks including death, job loss and overall quality of life. It is time to make changes. It is time to pay reparations. It’s time to reshuffle the economic order and reform capitalism to balance the interests of shareholders with those of all people and society moreover.
So as we reflect on the before-and-after of this too long, very strange year perhaps our nostalgia can guide us to make better, more intentional choices to build our local and global community to become stronger, more just and sustainable.
Whatever you decide to do on New Year’s eve, please wear a mask (one that covers your nose and mouth). COVID-19 is spread from person to person by respiratory droplets which are projected when you cough, sneeze, talk or sing. Face masks are barriers that prevent all of us from inhaling these droplets. And, if you do plan to be around others, maintain a distance (of at least six feet between yourself and others). It’s a choice – to consider your health, to act with compassion - with connectivity to others in mind.
We can start 2021 with a commitment for mutual purpose.
If we make good choices, we can build a better world.