Special Report: COVID-19

The Year 2020 Has Been a Wakeup Call

If it finally gets us to take the real crises we're faced with seriously, this whole unpleasant nightmare will be worth it.

By Michael Nabert
Published December 31, 2020

Today we bid farewell to 2020, a year so challenging that the world is brimming over with "good riddance" vibes like never before. Unlike most, I am here to honour 2020, for what it's worth. No one ever promised that every year will be easy.

2020 was a year of highly uncomfortable revelations, but even when we don't like what we see, pulling aside the curtains to reveal uncomfortable truths is valuable. That is because knowing is better than not knowing, whenever the thing you might not know is still going to bite you in the butt - and particularly when there might be something useful you could do about it.

So here's just a handful of the valuable-even-if-squirmingly-unpleasant things we learned in 2020:

Science is worth listening to, and science deniers are dangerous.

Experts told us for decades to prepare for the next pandemic. We mostly didn't listen. They told us that climate change would increase the range of transmission vectors for contagious diseases. We didn't listen to that either.

After decades of angrily insisting that all of the world's climate scientists are all lying idiots about climate change, the exact same Dunning-Kruger logic was applied to pretending that all of the world's epidemiologists must all be lying idiots about epidemics.

Almost two million worldwide deaths later, we can only hope that at least some of the public might be paying attention enough to think that maybe the experts might have some clue what they are talking about after all.

We aren't all in this together.

Hundreds of millions of people lost their jobs, while billionaires pocketed another two trillion or so dollars, in many cases very directly from the misery and misfortune of the newly desperate.

The faster jobs tanked, the higher the stock market soared. Profitable corporations drank deep from the public purse, because of course they did, because they always do, while the limited help that went to ordinary citizens left many behind and effectively turned into a subsidy for wealthy landlords.

Many of the poor are even being told that they have to repay the assistance they got with money they don't have, while details of which profitable corporations turned public largesse into big shareholder dividends remains a secret.

For every single politician talking about taking money from the places where trillions of dollars are parked in offshore tax havens, there are hundreds publicly furious that the desperate poor have it far too good and should be punished for not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps they can't afford.

Swift decisive action reduces the severity of major crises.

The faster a government mandated mask-wearing, the lower their Covid infection rates. The earlier serious quarantines were enacted, the more effective they were.

Half-assed shutdowns that tried to contain the pandemic by closing hair salons but not schools and closing bookstores but not bars were more public relations exercise than effective strategy. They even failed as public relations exercises, simultaneously pissing off both those who wanted actually effective containment measures as well as those who lose their minds over even the tiniest personal inconvenience.

New Zealand and Taiwan clamped down hard and fast over Covid, and by mid-summer they were safely crowding shopping malls and stadiums again, while half-measures in North America were triggering the second wave.

The big takeaway here is that whenever we talk about climate change and people insist on slow, incremental measures, we should finally be intellectually honest enough to smack them on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and say "No!" rather than squander our very last chance to avoid the very worst on listening to them.

Terrible human beings are everywhere.

I mean, sure, we all knew that there are a lot of miserable and unpleasant people, but I don't think it was really clear just how many of our fellow citizens would gladly kill a hundred strangers to avoid even the tiniest fleeting personal inconvenience.

Tens of millions of Americans watched children put in cages, allies insulted, public health set on fire, and citizens snatched off of the street without charge or trial by unidentified thugs in unmarked vehicles, and decided they very wholeheartedly wanted more of it, dialled up to eleven, please. Apart from the fact that they're not the sort to say please.

Trump's election loss doesn't mean that that vitriolic fact-resistant hatred is going away. Brexit won't start transforming the UK into a third world country starting tomorrow, and no nation should be complacent about whether such self-inflicted wounds are domestic possibilities.

If we don't manage to rustle up a collective strategy for dealing with growing bigotry and misogyny and all its associated violence, expect it to ratchet up further.

Efficiency is the enemy of resilience.

Efficiency in health care means operating as few hospitals with as few beds as you can get away with, with as few staff as possible stretched as thinly as you can browbeat them into working, to keep costs as low as you can.

Resilience is having extra ICU capacity and extra staffing capacity so that if a pandemic comes along, you can handle it and still have room for the car accidents and heart attacks as well.

Economic efficiency means eliminating cab driver jobs because it's cheaper to pay people below minimum wage gig work like Uber driving, where the driver has to cover the maintenance and liability costs.

Resilience is an economy where if people have to stay home to avoid spreading a deadly disease, they aren't immediately in danger of destitution and losing their homes.

Efficiency is barely the barest minimum. Resilience is extra capacity for a rainy day.

So why celebrate 2020? Haven't I just made the point that we should be glad to hold our noses and kick it out the door, instead of, as I earlier suggested, to honour the year that's ending? Well, here's the thing:

2020 wasn't rock bottom.

Not even close. It was the beginning of the tumble, the slide over the edge of the tipping point, and there's a long way down yet to come. It won't be long at all before 2020 looks great by comparison. Don't think of it as some sort of weird aberration from a "normal" that we can return to, because instead it's the beginning of a sickening plunge.

The virus isn't going away on January first, and neither is resurgent fascism, and the avalanche of evictions and bankruptcies is barely getting started while the impacts of climate change continue to gain momentum.

Small business and personal bankruptcies mean less taxes paid to municipal and state or provincial governments, which can't just print more money the way that national governments can, and therefore they'll stop being able to fund the services their citizens currently rely on and start sliding towards insolvency of their own.

Trust me, having to sit at home and watch Netflix and learn a couple of cooking basics isn't as bad as it's ever going to get.

So celebrate the fact that we learned some things. Celebrate that we got the parked-on-the-couch crisis before the much less pleasant fighting-in-the-streets-over-scraps crisis.

But most importantly, remember this: there's something really quite wonderful that could actually come out of the year 2020 if we find the collective will to make it happen. Failures become successes if we learn from them.

A lot of people who were too comfortable to really care about scarcity or inequality have suddenly woken up to the issue because now it's about them. Therefore, more people than ever before are ready to understand why we need a Universal Basic Income.

A lot of people who casually insisted that experts are all lying idiots are learning the hard way that sometimes they're worth listening to. Maybe more of us will finally start listening.

It's a long way downhill from 2020 to the inevitable sickening crunch at the bottom of the slide from the unequal, unfair, vulnerable, self-delusional house of cards we've lived in down to the cruel reality of what we're left with once the illusions are cast off. But this is the wake-up call, the moment where we can see a little more clearly how far the plummet is, and finally throw our all into making parachutes.

If it finally gets us to take the real crises we're faced with seriously, this whole unpleasant nightmare will be worth it.

Don't forget 2020. Learn from it. Get off the couch and get motivated.

Writer Michael Nabert has been a dedicated environmentalist for three decades, won an environmentalist of the year award for it, and reached an audience of millions online. He doesn't care whether you believe him personally, but if you don't believe the consensus of the world's experts, you might want to ask yourself why that is.


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