At the moment, it seems impossible that this year will ever be anything other than tragicomedic shorthand for every disaster known to humanity save an enormous asteroid destroying half the world — a year in which a comment like that prompts even very reasonable people to quickly Google “asteroids close to Earth.”
But quite soon, the 21st year of the second millennium will be history, and with luck, science, good leadership and a motivated populace, the pandemic of 2020-21 too will fade, first into memory, then into communal mythology and finally into textbooks, museums, documentaries and history tests.
There will indeed come a time when the smell of hand sanitiser will no longer be an emotional trigger and the parking lot at stadiums will be filled with sports fans rather than COVID-19 test sites. There will even come a time when people have stopped laying wreaths at yet-to-be-built pandemic memorials to honour those they’ve lost.
The year we realised that no matter how advanced our technology, we are creatures of biology, able to die in great numbers from a single sweeping disease in the same way that humans have died throughout history. That no amount of knowledge can benefit those who refuse to accept it, that human cells have no politics and that the driving force of any civilisation should be protecting its populace
What will future generations think, as they sort through the artefacts we left behind, unearthing from boxes and closets all those fancy face masks. The banners thanking first responders and medical workers. The dried-out packets of antibacterial wipes and rolls of toilet paper stashed in unlikely places “just in case.”
The archaic iPads saved simply because once upon a time in the Great Pandemic they allowed Grandma or Great-Uncle to say goodbye to someone they loved. Will they associate these things with a specific year? Will “2020” remain a date to be remembered?
With any luck, basic safety measures like hand washing and face masks during cold and flu season will remain commonplace. But will time and the relief of normal life swallow up the terrors and politics, the grief and irritations of COVID-19?
Will its realities be overshadowed by more pressing issues, making it a footnote to bigger changes — as the 1918 pandemic ultimately became — to be remembered only when another deadly disease bears down? Will “social distancing” dwindle into a cosy coffee-mug phrase like “keep calm”? Could “6 feet” sarcastically replace “I need some space”? Will history geeks use “anti-masker” to semi-humorously, semi-ruefully denote someone who rejects common sense?
When science reigned supreme
Or will 2020, with its kicky beat and symmetry, be seen as a pivot point — the real moment of disruption when we finally realised that history, even when buried deep like the last great pandemic, has teeth and claws. That science does not require anyone’s belief to be proved true.
The year we realised that no matter how advanced our technology, we are creatures of biology, able to die in great numbers from a single sweeping disease in the same way that humans have died throughout history. That no amount of knowledge can benefit those who refuse to accept it, that human cells have no politics and that the driving force of any civilisation should be protecting its populace.
Also that working from home is not all it’s cracked up to be and that a person can actually get tired of wearing sweatpants. Certainly, this has been a year of profound loss. COVID-19 was the leading cause of death. Many have lost a year’s worth of family gatherings, holiday celebrations and communal rituals of joy and sorrow. Those experiences and moments cannot be replaced, and the long-range effect of such losses is unknown.
But we have also lost, one hopes, any sense of complacency — that lazy, unexamined privilege that allowed some to look at rising death rates in other countries and dismiss them with the unfounded belief that “that can’t happen here.”
And we found many things, including a resilience and ability to adapt that had become increasingly rare in our “I want what I want, exactly the way I want it, and I want it right now” culture, where the answer to so many questions, the solution to so many obstacles, was at our fingertips.
Things we had taken for granted
We figured out how to work, learn and commune remotely, we rediscovered nature and began to cherish, if only through longing, much that we had taken for granted: the ability to embrace a friend, to hold a new baby — even, God help us, the banal comfort of workplace meetings. We appreciated works of art for their own sake, rather than their often overpowering context of place, event and travel. We planted gardens, helped one another in ways large and small.
We discovered forces that connect us and divide us, both of which were underlined in a November election in America in which — despite logistical difficulties, ballot complications and very mixed messaging from political leaders — more people voted than had ever voted before. Tirelessly, ferociously, patiently. In the end, the presidential candidate who believes in science won.
So will 2020 be remembered as the year we realised that it honestly does matter what we do? Our understanding of human history forms its skyline, the silhouette of events that loom large enough to be distinct. But each event is the product of many people doing small repetitive things. Wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid crowds, respect reality. Make 2020 a year we conquered, not the other way around.
Mary McNamara is a noted writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic
Los Angeles Times