• Natasha O'Brien

Was 2020 really such a bad year?

It was the year when life came to a crashing halt: schools were closed; office lights and computers switched off for weeks or even months at a time; and pubs, once the hub of the English social scene, went dark, many never to open again. We were locked in our homes. We were kept away from our friends, our families. We lost. We lost jobs and businesses. We lost safety and security. We lost our health. We lost our loved ones. Far too many of our friends, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers have gone before their time, and not just because of the virus, but because of mental health pressures, cancer that was undiagnosed, or because they were too afraid to visit A&E even when bowed over with chest pain. We became ever more aware of the disparities in our society. The rich got richer while the poor found themselves degraded to an even more desperate state, many unable to afford even enough food to survive. Politics divided us. Race divided us. It seemed there was a political conspiracy on every corner, and fake news confused and muddled and divided us further. And the institutions we had previously put our faith in left us dismayed. Governments failed to listen to their people; failed to listen to science; failed to listen even to the law. As we welcome 2021 with open arms, it’s important to remember that none of this is over yet. In fact, we’re smack in the middle of a crisis which deepens each day, grows in its complexity and threatens even more lives and livelihoods than perhaps ever before. Here in the UK, we begin 2021 with 53,285 new (known) Covid-19 infections, and 613 lives lost*. We begin 2021 on a dark day indeed.

But there is reason to hope. Doctors continue their fight against Covid-19 and its many variants, finding new ways to treat the ill, so that while there are more people in hospital fighting this virus today than at any time since the pandemic began, and while we do continue to lose a painful amount of life each day, we are still losing fewer than at the first peak of this pandemic back in the Spring, a testament to the hard work and incredible skill of these heroes in scrubs. And of course we now have multiple vaccines finally rolling off of the production lines and into the arms of society’s most vulnerable. A mere sharp scratch in the arm of this mammoth pandemic, but a start towards a more normalized future, one where we can see our friends and loved ones again, where small business owners can begin to re-build, and where we can come together to celebrate once more. This is why we’re so excited to welcome 2021 and leave 2020 consigned to the realm of a nightmare, to be shrugged off and forgotten, actively avoided in conversation, only privately visited in our darker memories. 2021 will be the year when we rise from our isolation and meet again. 2021 will be a better year.

But should we be so quick to dismiss 2020 as such a terrible year? If nothing else, last night’s London fireworks display reminded me that while 2020 brought out the worst that life can muster, it also brought out the best in us. Should we be so quick to forget how the volunteer spirit embodied in Captain Tom captured a nation and led to one of the most phenomenal grass-roots fundraising events of our time? Should we be so quick to forget the many local volunteering schemes that set up almost overnight as news of the pandemic broke, allowing those most as risk from the virus to isolate safely in their homes, confident in the knowledge that they would not be forgotten? Neighbours and strangers came together (and come together still) to take care of each other, to deliver food to the needy, medications to the shielding, and conversation to the lonely (even if it is over the phone). We became ever more aware of the incredible work our doctors, nurses, porters, registrars, and everyone else working in healthcare environments do. We applauded them; we raised flags and hung messages of support in our front windows not for movie superheroes or sports stars, but for doctors, nurses, and carers. We thanked ambulance crews, fire fighters, pharmacists, and grocery store workers we’d previously overlooked without hardly a moment’s glance. We were alone in our homes, but one with our communities. And it is the local community which became more important in 2020 than perhaps any year I can remember in my three decades of life. I lived in the US in 2001, and I remember the community spirit and general optimism which came alive in the minutes, hours, days, and weeks following that harrowing tragedy on 9/11; only in 2020 have I seen such a sense of community pride and neighbourly duty reach the levels I saw then.

And of course while we were busy looking after our families and communities in the midst of a global pandemic, there were other issues which needed to be addressed as well. I, like millions of others, felt disgusted and physically sickened by the video of George Floyd’s murder. It may have happened a world away from me in the UK, but the injustice which his murder signified rippled throughout a global society without border or geography, and reminded us that there are more similarities between us than differences, and that some of these similarities need to be re-thought. The Black Lives Matter movement sparked protests (some peaceful, some violent) across the world and shook the very foundations of western society to its core, and rightly so. And while there is still such a very long way to go before the BAME community finally overcome the injustices and inequities they’ve been subjected to for more than a century, small steps have been made. Long-held institutions are being re-imagined and re-thought. Hollywood is forcing its producers to demand a more diverse infrastructure in the entertainment it produces, and shows like Netflix’s “Bridgerton” - a romance set in a historically white Regency London – dared to demonstrate to audiences and show runners alike that even a historical production can be wonderfully diverse and still appeal to mass audiences. The fight continues, but 2020 began a global conversation which I hope will continue to bear fruit into 2021 and far beyond. Certainly 2020 deserves to be remembered as the spark which lit a fire under the base of White Supremacy. And, speaking of White Supremacists, 2020 will forever be remembered as the year when American democracy spoke and removed a dangerous demagogue from office. 2020 was be the year when 81 million Americans (and the global society who supported them) said “you’re fired!” to Donald Trump, stating with a mere tick on a voting sheet that America and Western Democracy as a whole will not stand for fascism, demagoguery or the divisive rhetoric which brought the peoples of America and abroad to breaking point. And while his legacy will continue to divide societies in the US, the UK and other countries so affected by American politics for quite some time, the 2020 presidential election result at least signified the beginning of a period of healing: we need only to look back at the coverage of the simultaneous celebrations and street parties which broke out in cities all over the world when Biden’s win was officially declared to see that Trump’s defeat was a turning point in our political story.

Many will read this and call me a naïve optimist. Many will look back at 2020 and remember the fighting and the hateful rhetoric spread between the Left and the Right. They’ll say I’m forgetting about the violence which the Black Lives Matter protests led to, or that I conveniently forgot to mention the counter protests which encouraged the likes of Kyle Rittenhouse and others like him to feel they could de-value life to the point of murder. Some will say I’m on the wrong side of history for supporting the BLM movement or the defeat of Donald Trump. Many will call 2020 the dismal year when the UK broke from the European Union. Many will say that I have overlooked the fact that while we celebrated the NHS earlier in 2020, by the end of 2020 we’d all but forgotten about them when we choose to “eat out to help out” or hold illegal parties and gatherings, allowing the virus to surge and put our health service under more pressure than ever. Maybe I am glossing over the bad bits. Maybe I am naïve. But I have often found the best way to get through a crisis is to hold onto the positive, because for every cloud there really is a silver lining. And while 2020 was less a silver cloud and more a hurricane, we must remember that even hurricanes do end, and that rainbows shine in their wake. When we sift through the damage left behind from 2020 and even 2021, I feel confident that it will be the good we choose remember. We’ll look back and think about the new friends we made in our communities, and how the majority of us stood side-by-side (albeit with at least 2 metres distance) to look after each other and protect each other. After all, the sacrifices we make as we continue to deal with this pandemic are made to protect each other, not just ourselves. The businesses lost can be re-built. Tables which are empty today will hopefully be filled tomorrow. And while every life lost as a result of this pandemic is nothing short of a tragedy, the more we sacrifice, the more lives we will ultimately save. We all have the ability to be heroes, and that’s what 2020 has taught us. Instead of endeavouring to forget the woes of the year just gone, let’s remember it. Let’s use it to spur us on as we head into the dark beginning of 2021, so that at some point this year we can finally observe the rainbow which will follow this storm, all the while remembering that such a beautiful phenomenon would not be possible without the rain.

* Source: Daily Coronavirus Dashboard from

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