2021 Looking ahead
World is welcoming 2021 with fixed feelings Image Credit: Jose L. Barros/Gulf News

I feel sorry for 2021. Seriously. The new year is being anticipated with such high expectations in all levels — economically, socially and, of course, health wise. As we count the remaining days of 2020, the year of the pandemic, we pin all our hopes on the new year to fix all that has gone wrong this year.

It might take several years, perhaps even more, to undo the wrongs of 2020, but we seem to think that 2021 will fix it all. Logically, that is an impossible task as we know that some of the things 2020 has done to us will never recover, one of them obviously is the way we live. I think that’s gone forever.

Major world events tend to leave a lasting impact on human lives. Some of those events caused radical changes in social behaviour, many for the better albeit. World War II brought countless deaths and miseries. It was one of humanity’s worst chapters. On the other hand, it had a positive impact on gender relations in the western world, especially in the United States.

The year that was

As American men went to fight overseas, the home front needed increased labour to operate factories, particularly the defence plants in addition to the vacant jobs that were earlier occupied by the thousands of men who went to war. Thus more than 5 million women joined the labour force for the first time during the war on top of the 14 million women who already had jobs before the war, but jobs that were mostly clerical.

Mindset shift

Women working in factories changed the way Americans thought about gender forever, mainly the role of men and women in the family and community. Women were no longer expected to stay at home while men went out to put food on the table. According to most studies, more married women than single women joined the workforce during WWII. That was a defining moment in modern American history.

The war brought about a fundamental change that empowered women and helped redefine the relation between genders, with all the necessary adjustments and compromises needed to raise a family. Of course, some of those adjustments, especially the impact on the ‘traditional’ role of ‘man of the house’ or on the upbringing of the children led to some resistance by men but the change brought about by the war was there to stay, and the American family never looked the same.

The coronavirus is definitely one of those momentous events that dramatically reshaped the way we live. The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of living separately, the year of living virtually — the year we drifted apart. After decades of technological advances that brought the world together — think globalisation — 2020 has somehow managed to disrupt that.

A virus has led to drastic changes in the social behaviour universally, in a way that only few historic events could have.

Virtual takeover

In 2020, the online world took over. We worked from home virtually. We shopped virtually. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries virtually. World leaders met virtually. Wars are being fought virtually as we have seen lately the massive cyberattacks on at least six important US government departments, including the National Nuclear Security Administration’s network, the Energy, Commerce, Treasury and State departments, in addition to several major corporations such as Microsoft.

Mail in voting may have cost Donald Trump the presidency. Young people who usually don’t bother to go out and vote found it convenient to vote from the comfort of their homes, thanks to the coronavirus restrictions. Traditionally, young Americans vote for the Democratic candidate. Lucky for Joe Biden.

Millions of people lost their jobs, mostly in the traditional economy sectors such as manufacturing, banking, retail, hospitality, restaurants, media and transport. Most of these jobs will likely be lost forever. Young people working online from home took over many of those jobs, while at the same time playing their favourite video games.

Moreover, companies struggling to stay in business found it less costly and more profitable to keep their staff working from home and save the cost of running vast offices. Other companies, especially in the retail business, such as Wal Mart, moved from the traditional in-store selling to digital selling and laid off thousands of store employees. One can imagine hundreds of examples like these — the Amazons, the Zooms, and Netflixes of the world have taken control.

Bleak outlook

Can one year undo all of that? Unlikely. Many of those changes are here to stay. Just like the social changes brought about by WWII, or the airport security paranoia following the September 11 attacks, many of the changes we have seen in 2020 are here to stay.

It is unreasonable to expect that 2021 will undo the damage. We may see some economic recovery as more people get the vaccine. But it will take more than a vaccine to untangle the web of the online regime that has overtaken our lives.