I emerged from the warm cocoon of my apartment this morning and stepped into a chilling December fog. In the distance, the hills were barely visible. Some birds were chirping but were nowhere to be seen. As my boots made hesitant dents in the icy snow, I realised that this scene adequately sums up 2020—a year in which our entire human civilisation had to wade its way through a pall of smoggy miasma; a year of prolonged disorientation, coloured by perennial uncertainty.
While I hesitate to join the choir of voices decrying 2020 as a wretched fluke that tragically befell us and will finally terminate come 1 January, I certainly recognise the painfully bizarre and enervating character of this past year: people fleeing cities like New York and London en masse. Urban centres morphing into deadly hotbeds of infection. TikTok skits becoming the primary source of hope for millions. The US president calling on his fellow citizens to sip up bleach and have UV light-rays shot directly into their bodies.
I thought back to a moment at a Toronto airport in the first week of March—a mere few days before lockdowns were imposed and the world went utterly bananas—when I sat at a virtually empty hall, waiting to board an even emptier flight, and was hounded by the palpable atmosphere of panic that gripped the airport staff and the few frenzied travellers anxious to reach their destination. I remember thinking that this entire experience resonated more with a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale than with reality.
Undoubtedly, 2020 was a year of tremendous loss across the globe. With close to two million deaths worldwide and nearly 80 million confirmed cases of infection (and counting), the coronavirus pandemic has wrought unfathomable levels of devastation, particularly among the most vulnerable. But what has been all the more unsettling was the unsteady trajectory of the pandemic and the world’s reaction to it. Throughout the year, we were continuously teased by flickers of a life we recognised as restrictions tightened and loosened, as borders sealed and cracked back open, as people grew weary of abiding by regulations they, at times, did not even fully comprehend.
That said, like all things in life, 2020 constituted a complex and multi-layered phenomenon. Alongside the strife, there was growth. Opportunities arose contemporaneously with loss.
2020 was a strident wake-up call; one it would behove us to pay attention to.
Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic would forever dominate the banners depicting 2020 to future generations. Not only did the virus result in unprecedented cases of disease and mortality rates across the globe, but it also brought world economies to their knees—spawning grave financial predicaments for millions, and introduced the rapid shutting down of borders in every continent—giving us a preview of what a world frequently beset by disasters would look like. The crisis has also illuminated the disastrous socio-economic inequities existing both within nations and among different countries and regions in the world (the apparent conundrum of how to provide people in the developing world with sufficient doses of the vaccine is yet another testament to that).
But none of these issues are novel byproducts of the novel coronavirus. Rather, the pandemic has only exacerbated and shot up to the surface with dizzying force numerous crises that were simmering beneath the surface.
The staggering rise of totalitarianism is one example, as long-standing authoritarians utilised the pandemic to consolidate power and accelerate their crackdown on human liberties. The unbridled greed of corporations and the illegitimate marriage between industry and state were also made painfully clear throughout the crisis, as governments bestowed their largesse on industry giants in the form of hefty bailouts—placing corporate welfare about the well-being of the public.
Then, the killings of several black people at the hands of the police in the US and a series of murders of black trans women over this past year had pried open the festering wounds of systemic racism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The disproportionate rates at which black and brown communities were decimated by the virus (as well as by the ensuing economic collapse and swelling eviction crisis) and their lack of access to healthcare services and relief during the pandemic served as further evidence of the overwhelming inequities and racism baked into the social fabric and political infrastructure in the US and beyond.
Finally, hovering over all of these crises like a dome of thick, unforgiving smoke is the ever-worsening calamity of environmental degradation. Over this past year, as our countries shut down and aeroplanes were grounded and cars vacated the streets—the retreating smog made acutely clear just how divorced we are from our surroundings, both our immediate communities and nature in general. Multiple pieces of research have thus far shown how pivotal is poor planetary health in sparking pandemics (including this one). Moreover, a flurry of record-shattering wildfires and hurricanes and floods and droughts and freak snowstorms throughout the year came as recurring yelps from the planet, which we’ve been tragically mistaking for a pit that we can mine, plunder and litter indefinitely.
Bearing all that in mind, a post-2020 ‘return to normal’ sounds alarming, seeing as normal was pretty darn insane, and certainly unsustainable. Normal was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode.
Another challenge that this year seemed to have exacerbated is the overwhelming, if not debilitating, sense of isolation and loneliness a great many of us grapple with. Gone were the days when hours of wallowing in virtual echo chambers and ignoring strangers at Starbucks could be bookended by a date or a dinner with friends or a visit with grandma, as months of COVID-19 lockdowns have introduced a physical dimension to our loneliness as well. Recurring quarantine orders had, quite literally, locked us up in confined spaces and forced us to confront ourselves with nowhere to escape.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to be able to work from home and maintain our sources of income over the past few months, the struggle has been primarily internal: rising mental distress and anxiety as we were being presented with our unmasked fears and desires and deep insecurities about ourselves and the world and the future. All the while, our familiar palliatives (namely—social media and Netflix) at times only exacerbated our sense of detachment and isolation. Many of us resorted to online shopping and relentless nude-swaps to silence the noise emanating from within, and flagellated ourselves for not being sufficiently ‘productive’. Fundamentally, we’ve been facing a swelling crisis of meaning.
But alongside the chaos of 2020, we’ve seen a great deal of progress, too. The advent of the virus has led to a dramatic proliferation of mutual aid initiatives across the world, and countless grassroots coalitions have come together to tackle socio-economic, environmental, and racial injustices. The tidal wave of anti-racist protests throughout the globe following the murder of George Floyd gave us hope that humanity is finally beginning to reckon with its bloody past and present and is shifting towards a more just mode of being.
And then there was the defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential elections, which precipitated an outpouring of optimism throughout the US. While Biden is by no means an ideal candidate, and will have to be repeatedly pressured to deliver on his murky promises of change, his victory nonetheless signifies a rejection of nationalism and xenophobia by millions of Americans.
Sifting through the detritus of this past year, examining both the pricking shards and glittering gems, I see three main tasks facing us as a human society. The first is the need to envision a new ‘normal’ for ourselves that departs from the conventions we’ve upheld and accommodates, as much as possible, the unique circumstances of each person and group. Just like a snake slowing his dead skin, it’s time for us to relinquish old preconceptions about the world—economically, socially, politically, spiritually. We must train ourselves to challenge the status quo and espouse new ways of thinking that are based on our personal and communal experiences, as opposed to ones prescribed and imposed on us by institutions, governments, and advertisers.
Our second task is to delve deeper and learn to recognise ourselves as whole beings whose value isn’t determined by how much we acquire or the level of our popularity. Ultimately, true emotional, physical and spiritual equilibrium can only result from our ability to connect with the most profound objects of our love and dedicate ourselves to their pursuit. That includes our unconditional and uncompromising love of Self.
Finally, we must come to acknowledge our interconnectedness both with other humans and the planet as a whole. It may not always appear this way, but at the end of the day, we are all bound by a thick thread that ties us into one living organism; ever-evolving and interdependent. It isn’t for each of us to aspire to change the world at its entirety, but it is incumbent upon all of us to begin to recognise the inextricable links between our fates, and assume responsibility for our personal role in impacting world events—be it the oppression of Amazon workers or the decimation of forests or the erosion of democracies. Only from deep and genuine acknowledgement can a substantial, change-inducing action arise.
Treading carefully on the slippery hill, I began to see branches and bare twigs resolving out of the humid mist. I knew then that while it will surely be a long and painful process, we can still find our way out of the fog; we’re not too far gone. But for us to succeed we must approach it as a human project—a large enough mass of people banding together to achieve a common goal of prosperity and health; of survival.
I’ll conclude with a quote by Mary Oliver:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”