It was the worst of times, a perfectly miserable year by any measure. Between a murderous pandemic, a corrupt and conniving president, a sharply divided and angry populace, and a sickening wave of deadly police brutality, mainly against people of color, what more could possibly go wrong? We have one more day to find out. In the meantime, let’s reflect on some of the key takeaways from 2020, the Lost Year of COVID.
Thanks to COVID, we learned that even the experts are fallible and prone to overconfidence that results in bad advice. Early on in the pandemic, public health guidance from the World Health Organization said the novel coronavirus was transmitted primarily through contact with respiratory droplets that landed on surfaces, so hand washing was billed as the key to prevention. As it turns out, the virus is primarily airborne, so masks and social distancing are the most critical public health interventions. The World Health Organization — and the public health officials who relied on its guidance — should have admitted from the start that it didn’t really know how the coronavirus is transmitted. The corollary to this admission would have been a fundamental change in the message: If we had been advised early on that the virus could be airborne and everyone should mask up out of an abundance of caution, thousands of lives could have been saved. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but even experts need to admit when they just don’t know the answer.
The COVID crisis also ripped the scab off the gross disparities in health outcomes for Black Americans, mainly due to structural racism that can be traced to our nation’s long and continuing history of marginalizing people of color. In the Lost Year of COVID, Black citizens took a beating in more ways than one. First, the coronavirus showed a strong predilection to kill people of color. Then a shocking number of America’s police officers demonstrated the same disturbing trait. What did we learn? That we have a lot of work to do to close the socioeconomic gap between whites and people of color in housing, education, employment and health care. And that the law enforcement community has a lot of work to do to restore public confidence and trust. They should start by rethinking the rules of engagement that allow officers to use deadly force against people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. It’s not OK to kill people — Black, white or otherwise — over petty offenses like selling a loose cigarette on the street or resisting jailers while under the influence of drugs.
Sadly, we also learned what kind of damage a narcissistic demagogue wielding the full powers of the American presidency can do in a very short time. In the process, we discovered that a consequential share of the American people are more gullible, and more susceptible to manipulation, than we ever could have imagined. If you thought the great American experiment in democracy could never be unraveled, think again. This was a near miss. Trump may have merely illuminated the strategy for a future version of himself, only smarter and savvier. Our national experience over the past four years affirms the devastating consequences of allowing a person who is utterly unqualified by expertise, interest, intellect or character to hold this nation’s highest office. It showed us that the experience, temperament and integrity of the Oval Office occupant really does matter, and that our brief dalliance with the rich-celebrity-as-president model nearly brought this nation to its knees.
The national media, too, learned some hard lessons about covering pathological liars, highlighting the bad habit of false equivalency in political reporting that allows bald-faced lies to be told with near impunity. Rather than calling out the lie, more than a few journalists engage in the practice of “balancing,” that is, providing statements from the other side that may or may not directly challenge the original lie. With the exception of some well-done fact checking, the national media all too often acquiesced to Trump’s daily pack of lies. Only when he went full-blown cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and denied he had lost the election did the national media finally do what they should have done from the start: call a lie a lie and turn off the microphone.
Lest we end on too pessimistic a note, 2020 did have some bright spots, especially the trio of fearless, effective women who are leading Michigan through its darkest hour. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson stood tall and strong in the face of disaster, both natural and Trumpian. We’re grateful for their tenacious, no-nonsense leadership. We’re also grateful for our fellow citizens who are still working on the front lines in hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants, putting their own lives at risk to help the rest of us get through this nightmare. We wish each of you, on behalf of a thankful community, a healthy and happy New Year. And a pay raise.