Today’s Essay

I know I’m not the first or the last person to make observations on the past year. Agree or disagree, you might consider the following:

Hindsight is….

            This has been, without a doubt, the weirdest year ever. We sauntered into 2020 as we did every other year. Each year, coming out of a two-week hibernation, we would re-boot, re-start our jobs, re-affirm our vows and re-calibrate our lives. Everything would begin again as it had done 365 days previous. We began marking our calendars with the dates of the government holidays to plan our upcoming three-day weekends. But 2020 would be the year of the pandemic.

The Chinese first knew about the virus in September of 2019 and in early October identified a possible source; The Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Chinese did their best to keep the story hidden and we all ignored it once the story got out. When the news of the Corona virus hit the news media, it was not the lead story. In fact, some national news outlets didn’t report on it at all. They were busy talking in the first month of the year, as they had for the past four years, about Donald Trump and his bombastic tweets, the upcoming presidential election and the Democratic debates. There was the possible scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal and the Australian fires to keep us occupied. The rest of the news was the untimely death of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, the latest Major League Baseball cheating scandal, the world’s first selfie photographer, a Baby Yoda Build-a-Bear and the drop in wine consumption by Americans. As Americans, we are the center of the universe and can’t be bothered with the rest of the world. Somewhere in the middle of that was a report about a new type of deadly flu in China.

This new type of flu was not of any concern to anyone in the world. After all, there was a new flu every year. There was a total of seven stories published in the American media on January third led by the Seattle Times and the trend of an average of seven stories continued until January 15th when Fox News reported on the virus 83 times. Business insider reported half that number that same day and CNN, only three stories. By March, however, this was a big deal. The virus was killing people in the U.S. and almost every news outlet was leading with the story. By March 15th, there were no fewer than two thousand stories a day and there was talk that we were heading toward a lockdown.

When the lockdown came, we acted as expected. We began hording. Toilet paper, bottled water and non-perishable food items disappeared almost immediately from store shelves. There was no plan for a pandemic, or if there was one, it was not implemented. The definition of an essential business was vague. Churches were closed, often under protest while some businesses were allowed to remain open. We adjusted. Events were postponed or cancelled, travel was discouraged, masking up became a thing. Graduations became drive-by events, we quarantined our mail and protests moved from police brutality to the freedom not to wear a mask. The finger pointing continued.

The Trump administration was accused of being slow to react and of not taking the pandemic seriously. The democratic candidates turned the pandemic into a talking point. State and local official condemned the government with one hand while asking for aid with the other.

Old people were locked down. The school year ended early. Jails were emptied. Governors imposed restrictions or assured the public that there would be no restrictions at all. Medical professionals told us what we needed to do and then back-peddled and then re-affirmed their original recommendations with even more fervor. We saw the tragedy of people losing loved ones, of overworked front-line workers and of people losing their entire livelihoods. The economy came to a grinding halt.

Everybody scrambled to survive, not so much physically as economically. State unemployment offices, never the most efficient of government services, were overwhelmed. People spent entire days dialing and re-dialing trying to connect to apply for assistance. Government websites, never the most up to date or well maintained, crashed. Some people never got the unemployment benefits they had paid into for so many years. The federal government handed out $1200.00 check and offered relief funding for small businesses if they continued to make payroll. The money in the fund disappeared in hours, taken up by larger franchises. Lawsuits were filed against state governments for loss of revenue.

Quickly, the con artists came out. People selling all sorts of remedies and preventative measures, unproven of course. There were those who said they were representing the government collecting “information” that they would use to steal identities. Politicians and preachers tried to use the pandemic to their advantage, predicting a complete collapse of the world we know if we voted one way or another or didn’t donate to their cause. Some officials reveled in the control they exercised over their constituents.

For some reason, we took our anger out on each other. Protests turned into riots and whole neighborhoods were burned to the ground. People who had worked their whole lives saw their homes and businesses go up in smoke, all in the name of another injustice miles and a lifetime away. The world was burning down around us and there was nothing we could do about it.

Deep in our hearts, we always knew this kind of thing was possible. If you believe in a biblical Armageddon, this has probably been in your head for some time. If you don’t, you certainly have known the history of foolishness by the human race, creating weapons of mass destruction including biological weapons. We’d seen this coming for a long time but believed or perhaps hoped that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime. Still, we refused to give acknowledge what was going on around us, behaving as normally as possible; buying, selling, marrying, working, playing….existing.

Even the things that we found comfort in, TV, the movies, concerts, the theater, sports, gyms and even outdoor recreation stopped. Only the television news and radio were deemed essential and every broadcast was filled with death and destruction. We could not gather as a community in any form or fashion. We were forced to do things many of us hadn’t done in years; read, converse and spend time with our families.

Resigned to the fact that nothing could save us; not government, nor money, nor science, nor rage, we all took a breath. We began to realize that all we had was each other. Whatever evil had befallen us, we were not going to let it rule our lives. Blaming people was not going to help. Many people returned to their faith or found faith altogether. Churches found a way to hold their services online or on the radio. Extended contact with our families seemed to make a difference as well. We began to become more involved in the lives of our children, our siblings, our parents and our friends. Long put off projects found their way to the forefront of our lives.

As it has always been, ordinary people did the extraordinary things that made the difference. Medical personnel and first responders traveled across the country at their own expense to work two and three day shifts in understaffed hospitals. It seemed to be, at the time, a hopeless effort to save lives. People opened up their homes to the displaced, risking infection themselves. With food banks overwhelmed, people began to donate the items they had horded early on. Individuals created funding sites to help out of work food service workers, out of work musicians and other displaced workers and to help front-line medical personnel pay for daycare. Small businesses. Switched gears to manufacture the Personal Protective Equipment that was needed. You could see neighbors helping one another and comparing pandemic stories.

The pharisees in this play, the politicians, did what they always do. They thumped their chests and took credit for inspiring these acts of kindness. They blamed each other for their own failings, ignored the rules they imposed on the rest of us and refused to sacrifice the way they asked us to do. It has been this way since the beginning of recorded history, but the human race caught on quickly. Knowing that there would always be those who would take advantage no matter what the crisis, we learned to ignore these people and became determined not to become them.

Saint Augustine theorized that evil was not something that was created, but rather only existed in the absence of good. We often look the other way when something bad is happening, when someone is being bullied and we almost always justify it with an “it’s none of my business” shrug. But when things get serious, we all seem to pull together, all seem to remember what we were taught so long ago, that we are all one family. The first to act are usually the young people, closer to that advice than the rest of us. Sometimes the rest of us fall in line to keep in step, but mostly, we come to our senses. That’s what happened in 2020.

I’m too much of a pessimist to think that this goodwill will last much past the first of the year, but I’m glad we had this moment. Maybe we will look back on 2020 year and remember how good we were and know that we can be good again.