What will we remember when we look back on 2020?
At the moment, it seems impossible that this year will ever be anything other than tragicomedic shorthand for every disaster known to humanity save an enormous asteroid destroying half the world — a year in which a comment like that prompts even very reasonable people to quickly Google “asteroids close to Earth.”
But quite soon, the 21st year of the second millennium will be history, and with luck, science, good leadership and a motivated populace, the pandemic of 2020-21 too will fade, first into memory, then into communal mythology and finally into textbooks, museums, documentaries and history tests.
There will indeed come a time when the smell of hand sanitizer will no longer be an emotional trigger and the parking lot at Dodger Stadium will be filled with baseball fans rather than COVID-19 test sites. A time when film critics once again kvetch about young people texting in the theater, when mothers moan about the ridiculous number of birthday parties an average kindergartener is expected to attend, kids whine about another boring trip to the museum and restaurant servers grouse over the time-honored fact that the customers with the most special requests are always the worst tippers.
A blessed time when Americans will need to be reminded by signs at local grocery stores and pharmacies to get their annual COVID-19 vaccine along with shots to ward off the flu and shingles.
There will even come a time when people have stopped laying wreaths at yet-to-be-built pandemic memorials to honor those they’ve lost.
What will future generations think, as they sort through the artifacts we left behind, unearthing from boxes and closets all those fancy Athleta face masks, the ring lights we once attached to our computers and incredibly detailed “what to watch” lists. The banners thanking first responders and medical workers. The dried-out packets of antibacterial wipes and rolls of toilet paper stashed in unlikely places “just in case.” The archaic iPads saved simply because once upon a time in the Great Pandemic they allowed Grandma or Great-Uncle Gabe to say goodbye to someone they loved.
Will they associate these things with a specific year? Will “2020” remain a date to be remembered?
With any luck, basic safety measures like hand washing and face masks during cold and flu season will remain commonplace. But will time and the relief of normal life swallow up the terrors and politics, the grief and irritations of COVID-19? Will its realities be overshadowed by more pressing issues, making it a footnote to bigger changes — as the 1918 pandemic ultimately became — to be remembered only when another deadly disease bears down? Will “social distancing” dwindle into a cozy coffee-mug phrase like “keep calm”? Could “6 feet” sarcastically replace “I need some space”? Will history geeks use “anti-masker” to semi-humorously, semi-ruefully denote someone who rejects common sense?
Or will 2020, with its kicky beat and symmetry, be seen as a pivot point — the real moment of disruption when Americans finally realized that history, even when buried deep like the last great pandemic, has teeth and claws. That science does not require anyone’s belief to be proved true. The year we realized that no matter how advanced our technology, we are creatures of biology, able to die in great numbers from a single sweeping disease in the same way that humans have died throughout history. That no amount of knowledge can benefit those who refuse to accept it, that human cells have no politics and that the driving force of any civilization should be protecting its populace.
Also that working from home is not all it’s cracked up to be and that a person can actually get tired of wearing sweatpants.
Certainly, this has been a year of profound loss. The week I wrote this, COVID-19 was the country’s leading cause of death. Thus far, it has killed more than 288,000 Americans; by the time you read this, that number will be even higher. Without the kind of aid other countries have provided for their businesses and citizens, millions of Americans are out of work and/or out of money; entire industries and many sectors of the arts are struggling to survive. Many have lost a year’s worth of family gatherings, holiday celebrations and communal rituals of joy and sorrow. Those experiences and moments cannot be replaced, and the long-range effect of such losses is unknown.
But we have also lost, one hopes, any sense of complacency — that lazy, unexamined privilege that allowed some to look at rising death rates in other countries or even other states and dismiss them with the unfounded belief that “that can’t happen here.”
And we found many things, including a resilience and ability to adapt that had become increasingly rare in our “I want what I want, exactly the way I want it, and I want it right now” culture, where the answer to so many questions, the solution to so many obstacles, was at our fingertips. We figured out how to work, learn and commune remotely, we rediscovered nature and began to cherish, if only through longing, much that we had taken for granted: the ability to embrace a friend, to hold a new baby — even, God help us, the banal comfort of workplace meetings. We appreciated works of art for their own sake, rather than their often overpowering context of place, event and travel. We planted gardens, found courage to protest inequities too long endured, helped one another in ways large and small.
We discovered forces that connect us and divide us, both of which were underlined in a November election in which — despite logistical difficulties, ballot complications and very mixed messaging from political leaders — more people voted than had ever voted before. Tirelessly, ferociously, patiently. In the end, the presidential candidate who believes in science and a protective, progressive federal government won. In the end, despite unprecedented battering by the losing side, the democratic system held.
So will 2020 be remembered as the year Americans realized that it honestly does matter what we do, how we treat one another and whom we choose to guide us forward? Far too many people will have died to prove a point that seemed obvious to many, but with any luck, the things we leave behind — the masks, the ring lights, the “I Voted” stickers — will become kitsch, like speakeasy signs or earth shoes, odd reminders of a moment when we finally remembered what we already knew.
Our understanding of human history forms its skyline, the silhouette of events that loom large enough to be distinct. But each event is the product of many people doing small repetitive things. Wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid crowds, respect reality. Make 2020 a year we conquered, not the other way around.
(Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times.)
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