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The year of the plague: what we learned

On Reflection

I doubt that most of us will remember 2020 as joyful, or even particularly happy. But some like me, cushioned by social security and savings, found contentment in solitary pursuits, and some, again like me, were riveted almost daily by the news. In a year of massive deprivation, bad news was one of the things that 2020 gave us more than enough of.  Although we ended 2020 with the optimism of a poorly-funded vaccine rollout, the year we finally got through offers some important lessons we shouldn’t forget.

President Trump thought he could bully the coronavirus by insisting that businesses remain open and Americans continue their “normal” lives without masks. Though statistics blanket the anxiety and sorrow behind numbers, the result of acting “normal” was generally rising numbers of people who tested positive for the virus, were hospitalized, or had taken their last breath. 19.5 million Americans got sick from the coronavirus and over 340,000 died in 2020, a death rate of 1 in every 1,000 Americans. 

Local shops in the Northwest Corner generally stayed afloat this past year.  However, a study by YELP found that 800 small businesses nationally—bars, hairdressers, boutiques—closed between May and September, and that 60 percent of these closures were permanent. By June 2020, as many as 7.7 million workers had lost jobs with employer-sponsored insurance because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Commonwealth Fund. Since these employer-sponsored health plans also covered 6.9 million dependents, a total of nearly 15 million people lost their health insurance, exactly when they most needed it. Despite a stimulus package that provided federal help early in the year, there were growing lines of cars awaiting boxes of food—by the end of 2020, over 50 million, or nearly one in six Americans, had not had enough food during the year. Eight million Americans had fallen into poverty between May and December. 

While Americans were generous with our signs thanking front-line workers, we were too often unwilling to take the precautions that would prevent doctors, nurses, attendants, janitors and all the other healthcare workers, from getting the virus. African Americans, Latinos and Indigenous Americans died from the virus at 2.7 times the rates of white Americans. For some, this was the result of limited access to medical care and higher rates of pre-existing conditions. But for too many, these high rates of infection and death were the result of spending long and stressful hours in healthcare and other high-exposure jobs. 

It is hard to forget the outbreaks in meat and poultry processing companies, which employ over half a million workers. Among those companies that reported infections by race, 87 percent of the coronavirus cases occurred among racial or ethnic minorities. Recall, also, that President Trump issued an executive order to compel meat processing plants to remain open (or in many cases to reopen) even while the pandemic raged. Since workers in these industries could no longer collect unemployment insurance, and in the best of times barely make it from paycheck to paycheck, this return-to-work order forced many to risk their health and safety to keep earning.

The Black Lives Matter movement captured national attention in 2020 after videos showed George Floyd lying on the ground with the knee of a policeman on his neck, cutting off his breathing during his last nine minutes of life. Although police brutality, like the coronavirus, has become a national problem, affecting all Americans, the problem is particularly acute in urban black communities. Police killed 164 black men and women between January and September, according to CBS News. Though the death of George Floyd provoked a lively multiracial Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and the racism of the courts, so far police forces and the justice system have been hard to change. 

Most of us know someone who was very sick or died last year as a result of a virus that tends to attack people’s lungs, and we all know families who are struggling to help their children with on-line schooling at the same time as they bring in earnings they are piecing together in new and uncertain ways. Thus, George Floyd’s last cries of “I can’t breathe!” offer a universal challenge. May our incoming administration be given the much-needed support as it works to increase the fairness and compassion of our healthcare, our economy, and our policing and justice systems.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.  She is trained as a spiritual director.

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