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7 lessons from 2020 that we forgot in 2021

Everything we learned during the Worst Year Ever—from how to treat employees to how to treat a public health crisis—seems to have been memory-holed.

7 lessons from 2020 that we forgot in 2021
[Source Images: mikroman6/Getty]

It turns out 2020 wasn’t as much like Groundhog Day as it seemed at the time.

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In the thick of last year’s lockdown, a lot of publications wrote about the seeming changelessness of pandemic life, frequently through the lens of Bill Murray’s seminal 1993 comedy. But an essential difference between the movie and reality has emerged in the bumpy year that we’ve endured since, which has been nothing at all like the aftermath of that Groundhog Day.

Over the course of the movie, Murray’s character, Phil Connors, doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, uses his time to learn crucial life lessons and improve himself. Americans seemed to follow suit with the first part in 2020, gazing inward and taking a warts-and-all inventory. The only problem is that we stopped short of actually doing anything with this information. The pandemic exposed so many vulnerabilities in our way of life—from the service economy to the supply chain—and dared us to not make some positive changes. Unlike Phil Connors, however, when time started moving forward again, we just slid backwards.

The pandemic wasn’t the only major teachable moment of 2020 either. Last year was full of upheaval on all fronts—social, political, cultural. Revolutionary potential was everywhere, if we wanted it, and for a while it seemed almost possible that we might optimize a new future from the ashes of the old one. Or at least find an easier way to watch The Conjuring: The Devil Made Do It when it was unsafe to go the movies. On that last score, we did indeed find success. On almost every other one, we did not.

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Here are seven lessons we learned in 2020 that we seemed to forget in 2021.

1) The pandemic is a public health crisis that can’t be resolved by individual action

Many of the mistakes our leaders made as COVID-19 first crept into America could (generously) be chalked up to a lack of information. Soon enough, however, the situation evolved and the nation’s problems were the product of poor communication and the absence of nationwide policy. Individual states were free to implement safety measures as they pleased—or not!—and official messaging was all over the place. Essentially, millions of people were left to calculate their own personal comfort with risk, based on wildly different data sources, to determine how to go about their lives. When they got sick, as so many did, people had to trace their steps to see where they had failed. Not enough social distancing? Not double-masked? Ate indoors at a restaurant? Whatever it was, though, it wasn’t all their fault.

By the time the third COVID wave hit Americans in late-November 2020, the nation’s world-high pandemic deaths were clearly the fault of a government that provided no consistent messaging, rules, or financial solutions to the people on the ground. It was a systemwide failure to inform, protect, and provide for people during a massive public safety crisis—one that helped cost the president overseeing it his job.

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Although there was a pronounced change in early 2021 when a new administration belatedly put out consistent pro-masking, pro-vaccine messaging—and passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill—it did not last long. Efforts to vaccinate all Americans ran aground, due to many complicated factors, with the arrival of the delta variant in mid-2021. Biden set national vaccine mandates for employers, albeit too late, while local governments found ways to skirt them. And as yet another variant ravages the country, the administration’s latest strategy is to . . . increase existing vaccination campaigns, send out at-home COVID tests (next month, and only in response to an embarrassing press conference flub), and leave further solutions up to the states. In other words, once again, responsibility for defeating our national nightmare is placed at the feet of individual actors—the unvaccinated, the mistake-makers—rather than the institutions that could create a testing infrastructure and clearly communicated policies to manage and mitigate it.

2) Tying healthcare to employment status is needlessly cruel

Even in the best of times, America’s healthcare system has been, shall we say, precarious? In a pandemic, it was more ghastly than ever. Unemployed people without insurance could scarcely afford to get sick, even though in many cases COVID had other plans. Furthermore, as the market retracted and businesses shuttered, more and more people found themselves suddenly without jobs, and in worse shape to afford a trip to the hospital. The pandemic seemed to validate the Medicare for All rallying cry of many Democratic Party early primary voters. It exposed so many problems with the American healthcare system that the topic of renovating it entirely kept cropping up in op-eds throughout 2020. Less than a year later, however, while the Democrats lowered the cost of Obamacare, and have flirted with the idea of improving healthcare somewhat, the idea of decoupling insurance from employment seems to have gained zero ground.

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3) Remote work is a fine alternative for most office jobs

Speaking of employment status, a lot of people changed theirs during the pandemic. If they didn’t jettison their jobs altogether, taking part in what we’re calling the Great Resignation, they changed the way they performed those jobs. In 2020, out of necessity, Corporate America more or less dispensed with the fiction that most office jobs can’t be done from home. Sure, there’s a certain frisson that comes with knowing that an impromptu brainstorm could technically twirl through an open office plan at any moment (although it seldom does.) Once the vast majority of those who could work from home began to do so, though, it turned out that the digital equivalent of most office interactions more than sufficed. Employees embraced their commute-free lifestyles and employers relished being able to hire applicants from anywhere in the country.

Not long into 2021, however, the conversation trended toward how soon the experiment could come to an end. At least, CEO’s tried to guide the conversation that way. New York Times opinion pieces argued the case against remote work, with The Washington Post declaring it bad for productivity. (Other analyses argued otherwise, of course.) One CEO’s op-ed, about the risks of employees not returning to the office, was so off-base it inspired her staff to go on strike the very next day. Instead of spurring us to rethink how much real estate is necessary for a company to function, the remote work experiment moved CEOs to wax sentimental about the sadness of empty office seats.

With the arrival of Omicron, though, office-bound employees had other reasons to be sad.

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4) Cataclysmic climate disaster is more imminent than ever

Christopher Nolan couldn’t have been any more explicit. His 2020 blockbuster Tenet featured representatives from the future coming back to the present to kick our asses for not doing enough to combat climate change. For the past 30 years or so, the world has been gradually talking about maybe, possibly making some changes to ward off climate-related disasters in the future. What became unmistakably clear in 2020, finally, is that the future we hoped to avoid is already here. We reached the destruction phase far earlier than skeptics expected. The year started off with devastating Australian bushfires, and continued with deadly wildfires that made California look like literal hell. The ultimate disaster scenario had moved irrevocably beyond hypothetical. Anyone with eyes could see. Something had to be done! And yet in 2021, taking action on climate change is still, somehow, not a major priority in the United States. Adding malicious insult to existential injury, though, a coal millionaire is currently standing in the way of billions in climate funding.

5) The facade of media objectivity makes no sense when reality has a liberal bias

The biggest political story of 2021 should be the GOP openly embracing violence. Between the deadly riot at the Capitol on January 6, Kyle Rittenhouse’s elevation into a right-wing folk hero, a series of violent threats toward school boards and electors, Rep. Paul Gosar’s tweet depicting himself murdering a colleague, and another gun-toting rep endorsing “Second Amendment solutions to stolen elections,” there is no dismissing this behavior as merely the product of some fringe contingent. While the Democrats have certainly had a difficult year, with plenty to criticize, only one party is flirting with extremism at its highest levels. Yet political media still tends to cover news through the lens of two equally serious parties operating in good faith.

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In 2020, Donald Trump blatantly telegraphed his refusal to accept the 2020 election results if he lost. The fact that he ended up carrying out his threat, and that so many members of Congress helped him do it, should have put an end to the media’s tendency to treat the extremist party as a mirror reflection of the other party. But alas, it wasn’t the end. Articles about the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riot had headlines like, “Congress hits new levels of partisan rancor,” as if both sides had equal claim to rancor. Journalists later pretended that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had equally valid points when Pelosi objected to McCarthy appointing rabid Trump defenders on the 1/6 commission. Sunday news shows kept platforming GOP politicians who refuse to concede that Biden won the 2020 election, without definitively pushing back on the claim. Perhaps some of these journalists are just so bored with the Biden era they want to do whatever is in their power to help get Trump back.

6) It’s not enough for Democrats to simply not be Trump

It was only by the skin of their teeth that the Dems found themselves in control of both the White House and the two houses of the legislative branch back in January. Biden’s win was decisive, if torturously long to determine, but Dems lost seats in the House and only won a 50th Senate seat in a special election. The message of that razor-thin win should have been loud and clear: The party needs to offer something more than simply not being as repugnant as its opposition.

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But instead of working to earn the votes they won by fulfilling campaign pledges, the Biden administration has been operating like that victory was its birthright. After a strong start, the administration settled into a pattern of doing just enough; more or less microdosing popular progressive initiatives. Its signature move has been to almost do the wrong thing and then backtrack after the backlash.

It’s not enough.

Biden said in 2020 that the election was a battle for “the soul” of America. You wouldn’t know it from looking at what he and his colleagues have accomplished in the year since winning that battle.

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7) Don’t be surprised that people like Korean entertainment

To end on a lighter note, a point that should be rather obvious to anyone paying even a little attention to pop culture: The surprise success of Netflix’s Squid Game shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Even with superstar music acts like BTS and Blackpink finding global success in the past several years, people seemed shocked that a South Korean export like Parasite did so well at the 2020 Oscars. Incredibly, that same sense of shock ran rampant through all the breathless coverage of Squid Game’s world-beating success. Maybe the next time another breakout hit emerges from the region, people will remember not to be so surprised.

Considering our track record for remembering things, though, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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