Yesterday a friend mentioned he was kind of disappointed at the level of “pandemic anniversary” articles he was seeing and asked what we take away from that year. I’m not sure my reckon written as a stream of consciousness will be any more useful, but here goes.
TL;DR: I think the year, and here I include the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and ever-clearer signs of the climate crisis, amplified fractures and made them more visible. Some people will have noticed actively, some will have perceived them without specifically understanding, and it’s too early to tell if that changes anything.
First, fractures of inequality in all its forms. Racism, sexism, money, hemispheres, generations, species. All of these were, in one way or another, made more evident during 2020. A lot more people finally realized the extent of the systemic disadvantages of BIPOC people; women took and were given overwhelmingly more pressure than men; essential workers became known as such but not valued accordingly on their pay checks and resources; the one percent were seen as inessential but got trillions of bailouts; the north kept at its insufficient promises while the south kept feeling the brunt of the climate crisis; the living adults kept extracting from their children and unborn generations; humanity kept destroying other species.
Nothing new in any of this but all of them more visible. Some of those sensible to each divide might be stronger in their will, but has the majority opinion changed? To be continued, as they say.
Another divide is the individualistic one. By which people often mean that for many it’s “me, myself, and I.” For my part, and I think for many more after 2020, it’s now understood as something deeper. The focus on the individual participates in our forgetting how important and collectively-built our social and material infrastructures are, which we see in the under-financing and lack of trust in our institutions (plus, you know, neoliberalism policies, and endless influence and lobbying by the rich). It also means people focus on liberties for themselves but rarely on responsibility towards others. And finally it means that even those who, initially, agree with collective policies like restrictions and masks, will easily ignore them when they think they know better, or deserve a break. It means “well yes, but I” quickly takes precedence on “yes, that rule makes sense.”
Another understanding that has shifted in the past year is in what’s possible. Through the discourse of our political “leaders,” many economists, and well, most people, thought that the economy can’t be stopped, that all of this activity and consumption is a great unstoppable mass, that any policy needs to be slow and incremental for anything to change. And then, bam!, we realize that there are breaks that can be used to stop things quickly when there is the will to do so. We can close things, stop planes, find money, set things up relatively quickly. Yes, there are missing gaps, yes some things still take too long, yes stress fractures appear in some places, but it can stop. Massive change can happen quickly.
All of these things flow into a loose interpretation of the Overton window. “The range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” Many, many, many more people now better understand the inequalities of their society, see more clearly some of the fictive constructs of the economy, see their neighbours / countrymen and women / humans on this planet differently (for better or worse).
I’d like to think this new understanding will shift towards more mutualism, towards being better neighbours, and better ancestors. But we don’t know yet. I see the problems with enacting, executing, and accepting pandemic measures and think we must do better, but will more people realize we are “all in this together” or will those bucking the restrictions sway further towards their “liberties”? We’ve got elections coming within a year in Montréal, then Canada, and then in Québec later on. Will votes and dreams sway towards the collective solutions we need to face these challenges and reinforce our society? Or towards anger and more a brittle society where each can (wrongly) feel they must concentrate on living and protecting their own lives, and everyone else be damned?
In the end that’s my takeaway from 2020; more clarity on the fractures in society and problems in our infrastructures. In Québec that’s seeing the brittleness of our health system, elsewhere it might be something else. Will this clarity sway public opinion one way or the other? Will it reinforce beliefs, and things don’t move? Depends if I wake up realist-pessimist or in an hopeful mindset.