Maybe the most shocking thing about a harrowing and historic year like 2020 isn’t the catastrophes we can’t help but remember, but the enormous ones we manage to forget.
I don’t mean the lifestyle changes that became routine, such as meeting by Zoom, which in turn has introduced the Frozen Talker, the Kilroy Pose (eyes and forehead only just visible over the bottom lip of the speaker’s window), agonizing Group Silence and irritating Overtalk. (Not to mention the firing of New Yorker legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin for in-Zoom masturbation). If 2020 needs a catchphrase, it should be “You’re on mute.”
I’m not talking about 2020 fads like TikTok, or the murder hornets that behead honeybees before eating them, or the sad fact that the world lost fellow nerds Chadwick Boseman and Alex Trebek and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even the depressing mainstreaming of QAnon conspiracy theories (e.g. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election because Hugo Chávez, the seven-year-dead Socialist former president of Venezuela, helped install an algorithm in voting machines that switched Trump votes to Joe Biden).
I mean the monumentally mind-smacking fare we simply forgot because there was so much else to take in. For weeks the entire country debated the actions of First Nations activists. They blockaded CN’s eastern railway lines to protest the building of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline project across Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia. Does that not seem like a thousand years ago? It was in February.
In the spring, an embittered dental technician, dressed in a Mountie uniform, climbed into a refitted police vehicle, and killed 22 people in and around Portapique, Nova Scotia, breaking the record for mass shooting deaths set 31 years ago at École Polytechnique in Montreal. Four months later, in August, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing at least 204 and wounding thousands. Both catastrophes faded faster than they would have in a normal year – a year without a presidential election, without that president, especially without a pandemic covering the world like a chef’s cloche. Brexit happened – so what? Ditto Canada’s free-trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico. Harvey Weinstein – remember him? – was found guilty of sexual assault and rape, and sentenced to 23 years in jail. The Olympics were postponed. Remember the Olympics? They once seemed so important.
Three days into the new year, an American drone assassinated Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani, raising the spectre of world war. A week later, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard unit shot Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 out of the night sky, killing 176 civilians, including dozens of Canadians – “an unforgivable mistake,” President Hassan Rouhani later confessed, after weeks of bald denials. Harry and Meghan called it quits as “senior Royals” the same day; the impeachment trial of Donald Trump began a week later. By the time the Ontario public warning system mistakenly issued a pre-dawn smartphone squawk alert that a nuclear meltdown had occurred east of Toronto, catastrophe was par for 2020′s course.
Then things got worse. History happened. It was bigger than any private plans we had.
The pandemic tilted everyone’s life. The first (official) COVID-19 death occurred in China on Jan. 9. Ten days later, the virus showed up in Washington State. Even then it didn’t seem that serious, until Wuhan locked down 11 million residents on Jan. 23. By the end of the month, the World Health Organization had deemed the virus a global health emergency – 10,000 cases worldwide, 213 dead – and by Feb. 11, it had a name: COVID-19. “We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or a group of people,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
The first death in Canada occurred on March 8, in a North Vancouver nursing home. That was just before Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, became a national idol for her implacable calm, before the CERB efficiently kicked in and the unemployment rate went suborbital and the stock market rubbered down (and then up) 23 percent, before the NBA and MLB and PGA and NFL wobbled on, postponed, cancelled and then reinstated their seasons in diminished form, notably without spectators. The games looked surprisingly mannered without people watching.
By the end of March, Italy was on nationwide lockdown. Doctors pleaded for help from teeming hospital wards. Someone else produced a public service video of a string of Italian mayors loudly berating women for going to the hairdresser. It felt like the first time you could laugh at the pandemic, despite the freezer trucks full of bodies. Tom Hanks got COVID, and so did Idris Elba and Sophie Trudeau. Her husband grew a lockdown beard. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, to the surprise of many, emerged as a capable pandemic leader. (Turned out he was chatting with Jean Chrétien and Chrystia Freeland.) The illusion fell away last month, as Ford’s pandering indecision helped drive cases back up.
By then, we were used to living differently, to staying inside in every sense of the word. Masks now hang from rear-view mirrors as a matter of course. Do you remember how clear the air was last spring, after everyone stopped flying and driving? Emptiness – streets, buildings, subways, even the space around the Kaaba in Mecca – became a deep and often pleasurable experience, for all its dark implications. Rituals evolved: banging pots in the evening to thank medical workers, making do with the tools at hand, playing music nightly on neighbourhood porches. People started baking sourdough and taking exercise classes and giving concerts, all on Instagram. Everyone had extensive plans, very few of which came to pass, and that was okay. Domino’s hired 10,000 new drivers. Demand for mental health services soared (suicidal thoughts were common), but so did social engagement: 15 million people have joined Twitter in the course of the pandemic.
By mid-June, COVID deaths in the U.S. exceeded its casualties in the First World War. Canada was managing better, at a fraction of the American infection rate. But the slightest waft of COVID news could lift or dash one’s mood. The first dose of COVID-19 vaccine administered to a test subject in June? Yay. Mysteriously unpredictable effects of the virus? Not-so-yay.
In September, Pfizer and BioNTech and other genius companies predicted a vaccine for approval in November, an unprecedented accomplishment. But by then the virus was closing in again, and even mutating, leaving each jurisdiction to its own brew of closures and curfews and fear. By the closing weeks of godforsaken 2020, the pandemic was raging once again, notching record infections across Canada: more than 2,000 a day in Ontario and Quebec, plus new highs in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and even New Brunswick, bringing the total to 507,795, with 14,228 deaths. (Even Nunavut, which had zero cases until November, now has 259.) The United States had experienced 17.9 million cases and well beyond 318,000 deaths. By late December, around 3,000 Americans were dying from COVID-19 every day. That’s almost two a minute.
If you weren’t thinking about the pandemic in 2020, you were often thinking about Donald Trump. He was a master of passing the blame. When U.S. COVID deaths surpassed Italy’s world record in April, Trump cut funding to the WHO, claiming it was too chummy with China. When the Dow Jones collapsed in March, he blamed “fake news.” He demonized his enemies and dog-whistled his base, but he held his rallies regardless, and maskless. A recent Stanford University study links at least 300,000 new COVID cases and 700 COVID deaths to those shout-fests. He lost the election anyway.
But 2020 was a year that eclipsed even Donald. After George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black resident of Minneapolis, was killed on May 25 by a police officer kneeling on his throat – “I can’t breathe,” Floyd kept gasping – demonstrations erupted around the world. Statues of colonizers and slavers came down everywhere, as more and more citizens took on systemic racism. Even NASCAR stopped flying the Confederate flag. A statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was painted pink in Toronto and another toppled in Montreal for his role in setting up residential schools. Some claimed these actions were a denial of history. The pandemic stilled the world, but the world kept on trying not to stay still.
All that was on top of the usual dire and distressing events that scar any year. War and conflict abounded. The Doomsday Clock measuring the likelihood of nuclear conflict moved to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has been since 1947. Climate change churned away. Wildfires blackened 50 million acres in California and Australia alone. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, and the almost unspellable Nioghalvfjerdsfjordan ice sheet, the largest in Greenland, began to break up. This year, Arctic sea ice melted to 3.74 million square kilometres, the second-smallest patch since 1979. As a parting gift to the world, Trump in early December vastly expanded the number of oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. You have to admit: The guy can be a bit of a jackass.
That isn’t to say 2020 bore no good news. Elon Musk’s SpaceX crew shot off into the wild black yonder. The stock market bounced to new highs on news of Biden’s victory, which also featured Kamala Harris, America’s first Black and first female vice-president. Pulling out of the pandemic recession won’t be easy, but vaccines are rolling out. Let’s repeat that: Vaccines are rolling out. Meanwhile, the unconventional trio of Parasite and Billie Eilish and Schitt’s Creek swept the Oscars and the Grammys and the Emmys, respectively – more evidence the world is gradually admitting it can be a wider, stranger, more inclusive place. Even Twitter and YouTube finally decided to label lies as lies. We did our imperfect best under the circumstances, in other words, and sought something other than money to sustain us; would it be too much to say we sought each other? Oh, and there was news from outer space. A repeating fast radio burst was detected coming from a nearby galaxy, a mere 500 lightyears away. God knows what it means. But it was something to look up to, in a bad year.
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