Goodbye 2020: A year like ... well, you know

Like 1968, 1945, 1918 and so many other landmark years, we won’t have to work hard to remember, in the decades to come, what year COVID-19 struck. It was in 2020 — a year to remember, whether you like it or not.

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A quiet downtown Chicago in March 2020, during the second week of a stay-home order near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Plenty of people are ready to leave 2020 behind.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

An Easter like no other.

A summer like no other.

A World Series like no other.

A year like no other.

The description “a _____ like no other” wasn’t invented in 2020. It has been used for more than a century: ”It has been a year like no other,” wrote R.M. Squires, summing up the world of dentistry in 1919.

But the phrase was worn to a nubbin over the past nine months by journalists lunging to convey in a handy three-word code the baked-in strangeness and continuous turmoil we’ve been enduring. A branded logo to rubber-stamp this slow-motion train wreck: COVID-19 pandemic meets civic unrest meets economic disruption. Our locked-down society of shuttered schools and struggling restaurants, all playing out against a political clown show that veers from farcical to frightening, sometimes within the same hour.

A presidential election like no other.

A Thanksgiving like no other.

So often was “like no other” flung, at times I wanted to scream, “EVERY year is a year like no other!” Years are unique, like snowflakes. And besides, 2020 is like other years. It’s like 1968, 1945, 1918 ... all the way back to 1066, landmark years where you won’t have to purse your lips and ponder, trying to dredge up a single event. We all know what happened in 2001. Nobody is going to snap their fingers and try to recall what year COVID struck: 2020, a year to remember, whether you like it or not.

A year is a long time. And different for each person. When I talk about my 2020, I use the word “blessed.” Nobody in my family got sick, never mind died. Many weren’t so lucky. Around the world, 1.6 million people didn’t survive getting the virus. And counting. In the United States, more then 300,000 Americans who ushered in Jan. 1, 2020, with a count-down to a kiss won’t be around to see the year out on Dec. 31 thanks to COVID-19.

Nor was the burden equally shared. A quarter of coronavirus deaths were people between 65 and 75. Half were above 75. Almost 25% were Hispanic people. Almost 20% were Black people.

Maybe that helped Red America downplay the crisis, right from the start, following the lead of Donald Trump, who dismissed COVID-19, worried that coping with it would hurt the economy and thus his chances for reelection. He made wearing a mask into a political statement. No amount of backpedaling and blame-shifting and revision and flat-out lying changes that. To him, COVID-19 was something deniable, something happening far away, in Democratic cities — boo, hiss! — to minorities, whose lives are hell anyway.

And to old people. Have the elderly ever had the value of their lives so casually dismissed? Religious fanatics who’ll stand on a corner waving a five-foot photo of a bloody fetus, screaming about the sanctity of life, didn’t even bother to shrug and say, “They were old; they were gonna die anyway ....”

A worker at a Miami nursing home wheels a resident back inside after a drive-by visit from the resident’s friend.

A worker at a Miami nursing home wheels a resident back inside after a drive-by visit from the resident’s friend.


The pandemic neatly bookends this year we’re trying to muscle out the door, from arrival to vaccine. But it wasn’t all that happened. The nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police May 25 touched off riots and looting, dialing up the sense of end-of-times crisis. Downtown Chicago, already suffering thanks to COVID-19, became a ghost town of plywood-covered windows. Neighborhoods across the city similarly suffered. It would make the year exceptional even if there had been no plague.

The changes wrought on our society hardly need be mentioned. Remote working. Masks. Plexiglas shields. Suddenly it was not unusual to get packages delivered every day, several times a day. One could go months without touching money.

Americans started wearing masks, except for those who scorned them as an impermissible trespass upon their cherished American freedoms. Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. By 7 million votes. He had spent months preparing his claim that he had been cheated — he did the same thing in 2016, remember — and for the last two months of the year manifested himself even more clearly for what he has been all along: a whiny loser.

He led an assault against democracy, an attempt to thwart the will of the American people that shouldn’t be minimized just because it was so inept. Trump’s War on Democracy might yet be the worst, most significant part of 2020, the part that historians remember long after memories of hand sanitizer have faded. Dealing with the coronavirus could have been child’s play compared to slashing the tires of American freedom. Hard to tell. We might be through the year, but its battles will still rage.

Protesters listen to William Kelly, host of the Citizen Kelly Show, as he speaks about suing Gov. JB Pritzker over COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday, July 25, 2020 in Springfield.

Protesters gathered July 25 in Springfield to complain about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 restrictions.

The State Journal-Register, distributed by the Associated Press

So where are we? Left to celebrate a Christmas like no other, and a New Year’s like no other, and gazing at 2021, a very welcome chance at a return to ordinary years. To drive the virus away. To get our society and economy and schools up and running. To hock the taste of Trumpian lies out of our mouth.

Reasons to be cheerful? Certainly. But 2021 is going to start hard, the virus still raging, since we won’t be able to get that vaccine into hundreds of millions of arms quick enough. Hundreds of thousands more Americans will die — that used to alarm people. Plus there are fellow citizens who, trained to scorn science and reflexively oppose anything government does, will refuse. Donald Trump is president until Jan. 20, and who knows what tricks he still has up his sleeve? So weeks of vandalism, plus whatever self-harm a Republican Party committed to demagoguery, countertruth, and anti-democracy can serve up. Keep your seatbelt fastened tight.

That said, we should still celebrate. Say goodbye to 2020 (all together now, “A year like no OTHER!”), seal it in a lead-lined coffin, and bury it, deep, in a lonely spot. At least we know, unlike standard horror movies, it won’t come bursting out of the ground.

As for 2021 ... Well, I should whisper this, so as not to put a damper on the festivities. But yes, it could be worse. Though the signs say it will be better. Vaccines are being produced by the millions. The racial injustice that sent people into the street over the summer is still there, ticking, which is better than politely hidden. Our other problems, from climate change to crumbling infrastructure, didn’t go away because of COVID-19. They’re all still there, waiting for us.

We should leave 2020 not with fear of the future, but pride that we made it. Through the worst pandemic in 100 years. Through the last year, please God, of the worst president in American history. Through violence in the streets. That’s a shield to carry into 2021.

The world is still an uncertain, dangerous place. But we have survivor street cred now. A scar we can talk about. We survived 2020, isolated, uncertain, scrambling, with truth itself under siege. A year, to coin a phrase, like no other. We know better now, or should. Who can tell what we can do in 2021, working together, armed with our hard-earned wisdom? Besides, maybe we’ll get lucky and only have a standard-issue ordinary year to cope with. A year like many others. Wouldn’t that be nice? Let’s all raise our glasses and toast to that.

President Donald Trump, returning to the White House from a June rally in Tulsa, Okla. Attendance at the rally fell far short of what his campaign had promised.

President Donald Trump, returning to the White House from a June rally in Tulsa, Okla. Attendance at the rally fell far short of what his campaign had promised.


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