There is no question that 2020 was a wretched year for so many people who fell ill with COVID, or lost a loved one to the disease, or lost their livelihood because of it, or suffered from the isolation and loneliness brought on by physical distancing. It was a plague year, and there are many reasons to wish it good riddance. In solidarity with all those who suffered so greatly in 2020, I feel reluctant to say anything good about the year. But when I reflect on all the fears that overtook me in March, I see that none of them came to pass, so I’ve come to think of 2020 as a merciful year.
Back in March I expected that I’d get COVID sooner or later, and so would many of my friends and family members, and in the coming months I’d witness some of them die. I know that these fears of illness and death came true for many people in 2020, but for me they didn’t. As I listened to the news each morning with continuing alarm, hearing that cases were rising, rising, rising everywhere, such an explosion was not mirrored in my own social circle: I know one person who caught the disease and recovered; everyone else in my network stayed healthy in 2020. It’s not fair that some people have the resources to protect themselves from this disease while others do not. But while we should be upset at the social inequities that lead to disparate health outcomes, we can also feel a bit of gratitude that COVID turned out to be more preventable than we initially feared. Back in March it seemed that COVID was an inscrutable and invincible monster. Of course, there are people who took all possible precautions in 2020 and still caught COVID – and there are many whose living situation or occupation or economic circumstances made those precautions impossible. But on the whole, COVID turned out to be a disease that we can avoid by wearing masks and staying apart. That’s better than it seemed in the early days, when we were told that masks couldn’t protect us, and when there were fears that COVID could come in the mail, that we had to disinfect every item that came into our house, that we should shower after going outside, that maybe a neighbor could pass the disease to us through a crack in a shared wall, and so on.
Back in March it wasn’t clear that a vaccine for COVID could ever be developed, and if it could, the experts told us, we might have years to wait. But by the end of the year, several vaccine candidates had been proven effective. Remarkable!
Back in March there was talk of the medical system collapsing, and how care might need to be rationed. If you got sick, they said on the news, there might be no bed for you in the hospital, or no ventilator, or no expert to operate it. Though I didn’t need to see a doctor in those early months, I worried about what might happen if I lost a dental filling that had given me trouble before. Would the dentist see me? And if so, would I be risking my life by going to the office? A few months later, the situation looked very different: with the proper precautions in place, it seemed that routine medical and dental care could be practiced safely. In September, I went in for a regular cleaning without incident, awestruck by normality having my teeth cleaned just like in pre-COVID times. There’s no doubt that healthcare workers were stressed to the breaking point in 2020 and the system struggled with unprecedented challenges — it almost fell down — but the sort of catastrophic collapse that some predicted back in March did not come to pass.
Back in March, it was hard to find toilet paper anywhere in physical stores or online. I tried to order rice and it was sold out everywhere. Rice! I feared that this was just the beginning of what would be a widespread breakdown of global supply chains. In the coming months, I expected I’d have to adapt to a totally different life, one without all of the products and services I had come to take for granted. I’d get a taste of the scarcity that is the norm for so many around the globe. And I’m sure there were many “preppers” who thought their time in the sun had finally come. But while shortages of toilet paper and rice were reminders of our dependency on intricate, precarious, and arguably destructive economic systems, these shortages did not persist or expand in 2020. Toilet paper returned to the shelves in due time. Supermarkets remained open throughout. The status quo resumed.
Back in March, the stock market crashed. There were days when trading was halted on the New York Stock Exchange because prices were dropping too fast. Some of us who fear that the global economy is a house of cards jumped to the conclusion that perhaps it was finally crumbling down. Despite said fear, I had invested my life savings in the market and now I thought I’d see those savings evaporate. But several months later, the market came roaring back, proving either that it is totally disconnected from reality, or that in reality, people were still buying and selling things just as they always had.
Back in March, I feared that the 2020 presidential election in the US would solidify the country’s descent into kleptocracy, autocracy, science-rejection, climate-change-denial, nepotism, insanity, or however you want characterize it, but what happened instead is that we got a bit of a reprieve from that descent.
So when I think of it this way: COVID turned out to be more preventable than we thought, a vaccine came much more quickly than we thought, the medical system and economy turned out to be more resilient than we thought, and the US political system didn’t veer into outright autocracy, I have to conclude that most everything about 2020 came out much better than I expected it to.
So, thank you, 2020! While you were a challenging year for all, and a miserable year for many, you were also a merciful year, considering how much worse you might have been. You made us fear the worst on all fronts but you left us with hope.