Medical staff US COVID
Medical staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) transport a COVID-19 patient at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut (File) Image Credit: AFP

Ask Americans and they will tell this upfront: 2020 was our year from hell. The worst, most rotten year of our lives. The one year that no one in their right mind would want to revisit. Or perhaps, lifting a Latinate from Queen Elizabeth’s 1992 speech (delivered after a fire had caused extensive damage to Windsor Castle and three royal marriages had collapsed) it was truly an “annus horribilis”, not a year, in the monarch’s wording, “on which we shall look back with undiluted pleasure”

Laconic bynames aside, for Americans it was, at the least, a year like no other, book ended between, on the one hand, the outbreak of a calamitous virus and, on the other, the denial by voters of a second term in office to an incumbent president, the latter an event that has happened only four times over the last century, for rarely in American political culture are presidents seeking a second term rejected by the electorate.

The stage for these two focal points was a polarised nation whose social fissures began, by midyear, to burst into the open in the form of urban unrest, with angry crowds marching — at times clashing — in the streets.

Three months into 2020, on March 11, the day the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, America found itself squaring up to a virus that presented it with the most daunting challenges since the Civil War. Throughout the year, that virus — a puny brute that measured one thousandth the width of an eyelash — pummeled America, battered America and humbled America to its core.

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The impact on the social order was no less than historic, for recall, in this context, the indelible images of hitherto prosperous but now unemployed, pauperised working and middle class providers lining up for hand outs at food banks from coast to coast. And, yes, cars were repossessed, renters were evicted and family homes were foreclosed.

A new tense in the grammar of “the American way of life” had begun, dimming its habitually irrepressible charisma and zest.

Economic life came close to screeching halt as the pandemic rolled on across the country, with more than 20 million laid off workers receiving unemployment aid by year’s end — truly an unimaginable time for the citizens of what putatively was the wealthiest, most powerful nation in history.

A traumatising experience

Then came the trauma of the lockdown, as restaurants, theatres, concert halls, art galleries, sports stadiums, public libraries and so on shut down. Denied the pleasure of access to these seemingly inconsequential venues — denied, say, joining friends at a restaurant in an ethnic neighbourhood, watching an actor inhabit a character on the stage, a dancer pirouette in the air and a sax player jam at a concert, as well as mingling at an art exhibition, cheering on your baseball team at the ballpark and browsing at your local library — may not seem like a traumatising experience.

True, but only at first blush, for venues like these are where you find anchored the aesthetic roots of Americans’ constitutional right to “the pursuit of happiness” (their right to “have a good time”, darn it) in quotidian life.

No people could abandon customs of communal experience that had been encoded in their culture for generations — customs as familiar to them as the wince of a muscle in their body — without destabilising their internal psychic economy.

But in America, in 2020, an indomitable virus cried havoc and Americans “sheltered in place”, confining themselves, at times by suggestion but often by decree, to purgatorial isolation from one another.

All the while, as this mayhem picked up, the President of the United of the States was reassuring his fellow Americans that it was all “like the flu and it will soon go away”. So these folks remembered that when they went to the polls in November.

Grubby realities of US justice system

Then unfolded the perennial struggle against racial injustice, spearheaded by activists determined to expose how the ideal of equality for all in America often always comes up against the grubby realities of its justice system.

It is unconscionable, not to to mention unfathomable, these activists argued — and along with them so did millions of other thoughtful Americans — that the wounds of that injustice remain unhealed 244 years after the founding of the American Republic in 1776.

Yet, the year 2020 ends on a note of grace. Several vaccines, providing acquired immunity against Covid-19, were developed, paving the way for mass vaccinations; in mid-December, President-elect Joe Biden delivered a speech to the nation — a nation broken in spirit at home and diminished in stature abroad — pledging to bring all Americans together; and, yes, in June, a two-block long pedestrian section of 16th Street in downtown Washington, scene of countless protests throughout the year, was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.

So, Twenty Twenty, adieu. Adieu to your perverse persona, your fury of blood, and get thee to where you belong in the history books.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile