December 18, 2020
An emergency root canal… a 15-hour flight seated by a guy who doesn’t believe in personal hygiene… nasty, drawn-out divorce proceedings… and the year 2020.
They’re awful experiences, in different ways. You can look back and say, “Wow, that sucked… But at least it’s over.”
We’re almost there with 2020. And what a year it’s been…
The year started off with a bang – literally – for Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds special forces unit and a war hero battlefield commander, when he was killed by a U.S. drone attack. It brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran… At the time, the New York Times called it “the most perilous chapter so far in President Trump’s three years in office” and “the riskiest move made by the United States in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
On the other side of the world, Australia was suffering with wildfires that were 80 times bigger than those that ravaged California in 2019 (this is what your 10th grade English teacher called “foreshadowing”). Climate change brought on in part by the country-continent’s excessive reliance on coal – Australia is the world’s fourth-largest producer – was largely responsible for the drought conditions that fed the fires.
In the midst of that, President Donald Trump was impeached. Whether you think it was a political witch hunt or deserved punishment of epic corruption, impeachment is a big deal. It’s happened just three times in American history. And it’s another log on the Mount Everest-sized bonfire of the collective American societal PTSD hangover from the Trump era that – in the best of times – would take a generation to get over.
A week later, the Chinese government imposed a lockdown – a word that until 2020 was the near-exclusive domain of prison movies – in Wuhan, one of those cities in China that again until this year you never heard about (even though it has four times the population of Chicago). On January 21, a man in Seattle was diagnosed with the first reported case of the coronavirus in the U.S. – though there’s a good chance that it may have appeared earlier.
Then – we’re still in January, I know! – Kobe Bryant, a controversial but widely beloved basketball icon, died at age 41 on a foggy California mountainside in a helicopter crash.
After that start to the year (remember, foreshadowing), every one of us should have made like the bears and gone back into our caves to sleep off the rest of 2020.
In February, Singapore – where I was living at the time – briefly had more coronavirus cases than any other country, bar China. It was a full-scale panic… which, in hyper-organized, supernaturally efficient, Disney-meets-1984 follow-the-rules Singapore, translated into “people were wearing masks and doing everything the government told them to do in order to keep each other safe.”
When I visited the U.S., some friends and colleagues kept their distance as the elbow-bump began to nudge out hugs and handshakes. As a traveler from Asia, home of what was then unironically called the “Wuhan virus,” I was granted my own social-distanced bubble. Within months, it would be the U.S. – rather than science-believing, rule-following Asia – that would become a superspreader event masquerading as a country.
In March, it started to get real for many Americans when actor Tom Hanks announced he tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, Forrest Gump pulled through.
In the meantime, investors in the U.S. had been whistling by the graveyard as global markets grappled with a virus that, like a Justin Bieber earworm on steroids, had gone viral – wreaking havoc on the global economy. But the economic and investment reality hit days later, when the S&P 500 Index cratered 34% in just over a month, in what was a Usain Bolt-meets-Road Runner of stock market collapses.
How much havoc was wreaked? Markets, of course, look ahead… And they didn’t like the zombie world that they saw. Neither did the U.S. Congress or the Federal Reserve, which pumped trillions of dollars into the economy as part of what was by far the biggest stimulus in history.
By April, the only next logical thing to happen was the appearance of… aliens. The Pentagon – not your tinfoil-headed neighbor who eats conspiracy theories for breakfast – released videos showing “unidentified aerial phenomena,” which is what politically correct people say to not offend the aliens who are passengers in what everyone else calls UFOs.
As the Financial Times – which usually restricts its scare-mongering to stories about stock valuations and underperforming bank CEOs – wrote at the time…
We can add aliens to that list of bad things that don’t obey lockdown… if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to fear the worst. The aliens are probably coming, and probably aren’t delivering PPE.
Crucially the aliens won’t arrive at a time of our choosing. Neighbours only ever pop round when you are in the shower. Aliens will only ever arrive during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, the price of oil turned negative for the first time ever. Oil drillers were literally paying other people to take the oil off their hands. It was unprecedented… as was the overuse of the word “unprecedented” to describe a whole lot of what happened in 2020.
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And in May, something else bad from Asia arrived on America’s shores, in Washington state… The two-inch long Vespa mandarinia, also known as Asian giant hornets or, more colloquially, murder hornets. As the BBC explained…
Multiple stings are deadly to humans and in their ‘slaughter phase’ the hornets destroy honeybees, whose bodies they feed to their young.
Scientists are now on a hunt for the hornets, hoping to eradicate the species before they wipe out US bees.
At that point, scientists weren’t concerned about the murder hornets wiping Americans out– since, well, that imported virus was doing a pretty good job of it already.
June & July
Then we moved into the summer of discontent, when the U.S. experienced the worst civil strife since the 1960s following the police murder of George Floyd, and other police-related killings – with racial inequality more broadly rising to the forefront. A hyper-militarized police force went head-to-head with a citizenry that owns, on average, 1.2 guns per person. What could go wrong?
As violence broke out in the U.S., the rest of the world stepped up its troll game. In response to months of American criticism of violence against Democracy protestors in Hong Kong, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted, “I can’t breathe”… the words George Floyd was heard saying repeatedly before his death, accompanied by video clips of violence in American cities.
Iran, also a frequent target of American tut-tutting about its human rights record, joined in, with the head of the country’s judiciary calling for U.S. leaders to “stand trial before the international courts on charge of deliberate homicide and racial discrimination.”
All the while, the things we don’t want to remember… an endless presidential campaign, a(nother) long summer of California burning, lockdowns, face masks, kids shifting from virtual school to a virtual summer vacation, working from home, and a coronavirus death tally in the U.S. that was 50,000 in April… 100,000 in June… 200,000 in September… and 300,000 in December… making America great in all the wrong ways.
In August, the man who could have saved us from all of this – well, the fictional Marvel character he played in the movies, at least – passed away. Chadwick Boseman, who played King T’Challa in the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, lost his struggle with colon cancer. In a world where people call in sick for an infected splinter, Boseman finished several blockbuster films – while keeping his diagnosis private – before his death, truly a hero.
The following month, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87, sparking a fight to replace her that – like so much that’s happened in 2020 – in normal years would be all that we talked about for months, yet feels almost half forgotten already. But her replacement with the conservative Amy Coney Barrett may be one of Trump’s most enduring legacies – bigger even than the normalization of bad hair and misaligned tie length.
The U.S. president tested positive for the coronavirus in early October. One might think with its fearless leader infected, the nation’s people came together, hoping for the speedy recovery of their fellow human… Wrong.
(People in the U.K. had already experienced this emotional roil, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March. Like Trump, he recovered thanks to an intensity of medical care and pharmaceutical intervention unavailable to virtually any of his constituents.)
And then, what we’d all been waiting for, on November 3: The 63rd anniversary of the launch of Laika, a mixed-breed dog that was the first living being to go into orbit in the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 2 mission. And the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sesame Street and good-for-you TV Public Broadcasting Service.
Oh, and the U.S. presidential elections, which were the most important and consequential in, well, forever.
And December? Another coronavirus wave – it’s back, bigger and badder than ever – and renewed lockdowns and the prospect of do-it-yourself superspreader events in your own living room (the sequel to Thanksgiving: I’m Thankful for COVID-19).
2020’s Silver Lining?
The glass-half-full perspective of 2020 is that now we know what we’re capable of when we’re pushed to our limits.
The extreme athlete who can only crawl over the finish line at the 50-mile marker… or the world-record hot dog eater (73 in 10 minutes) – well, we’ve done that now, in real-life terms. The beyond-exhausted ER doctor at the end of a 24-hour shift who’s triaging tsunami-like waves of struggling-to-breathe COVID-19 patients… the single mom juggling a job and three kids doing online school in a small apartment for weeks on end… back-to-back Zoom calls for an entire day. Now we know… We can do it.
The good thing about that emergency root canal, the smelly airplane neighbor, and the migraine-inducing divorce trial that I mentioned at the start of this essay, is that all of these end… At a certain and definite point, you can stick a metaphorical fork in it because it’s done. And there’s no leakage on to the next activity.
In a few weeks, 2020 will be done. But unfortunately, the Gregorian calendar – and the 365.26 day-cycle of the Earth rotating around the sun – is arbitrary. And it has no direct link to the terrible things that humankind brings upon itself on the rotating dirt ball called Earth.
The major ugliness of 2020 won’t disappear with the turning of the calendar. In 2021, we may be pushed to our limits again… or there might be new limits to discover, like a 36-hour ER shift, 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes, and month-long staycations.
Here’s hoping the winds shift for mankind in 2021…
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With P.J. O’Rourke
And Editorial Staff
December 18, 2020