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In 2020, COVID Put a Mirror Up to Our Society

It will take concerted action to pull us out of 2020’s stew of death, fear, pain, deliberate cruelty and loss.

A woman stands in a beam of sunlight streaming into the Lincoln Memorial as the sun rises on December 27, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Regarding the coherence of the forthcoming essay, I make no promises. Coherence, like facts and much of justice, sailed over the edge of Donald Trump’s flat Earth when the COVID-19 pandemic laid us out and stomped us down. It has been a long, long year.

“All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie,” wrote W.H. Auden. I dare to tread his mighty steps a moment, with the only voice I have, made thick with rage and sorrow by all we have seen.

I am not going to try to make sense of this year, because there was no sense to this year. There was death, and fear, and pain and loss. There was rage, and greed, and deliberate cruelty and a new form of eugenics born of incompetence tied with a bow of hate. There was solitude like a bass note beneath the music, heavy, low and always there.

The map of 2020 looks like one of those ancient scrolled parchments that sea captains used to navigate the mysterious oceans of elder centuries. In this place and that, the map bears a caption — “Here There Be Monsters” — and the wise sailor steals the wind to steer wide of those perilous shoals and fathomless deeps.

We have been denied such responsible navigation. Our sea monsters are in the White House, in Congress, in business, in police uniforms, in a sector of the media that would declare rain to be sand if Trump deemed it so, and in the MAGA devotees who refuse masks at the top of their voice but expect to be first in line for the vaccine. Marco Rubio, your needle is ready.

COVID-19 is a mirror, and while some steadfastly see only what they wish to see, the great preponderance of the population unavoidably beholds a bleak reflection indeed. Name an institution, and COVID has showed precisely where its long-standing flaws live: Politics, education, health care, labor. Name that which you have depended on, and you will find it dented, scarred and twisted by this lethal passage. Nothing remains untouched.

Capitalism, American-style, has handled this pandemic with almost seamless irresponsibility. COVID, like water, finds all the cracks and crannies, all the pinholes and rends, and pours through.

Yet we remained open as a nation for all these long and infected months, plowing workers into meatpacking plants and retail stores because the machine of profit must be fed. Wealth must be extracted — this is the one and only law we have lived under for so long, and COVID is now the pyre upon which the conceits of almighty capitalism burn. The virus is the “Invisible Hand” Adam Smith never saw coming, and it has slapped down our conceits with effortless wrath.

“Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare,” incanted the musician Beck 27 years before the shit hit the fan and sprayed the world. The phrase serves as a perfect caption for this year. The “money people” kept trying to shove the marshmallow into a coin slot, kept trying to force everything back to “normal” even as the reaving of COVID ate every argument for anything but paying people to shelter in place and paying businesses to shutter until the virus could be contained and cornered by a vaccine.

The capitalists wrung their profits from the rest of us, and the fear on the faces of grocery store workers as they wonder who will kill them with a sneeze has been the price of doing business.

All this is but a corner of the truth of 2020. After police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a powerful movement of Black-led protesters channeled a maelstrom of energy in response to incredible organizing by Black Lives Matter and other groups. For the first time in my living memory, white supremacy and the white power structure had their gilded cage rattled to profound effect.

Here’s what I know.

“Defund the Police” means ideas like this.

Health care is a human right, and must not be tied to employment.

If you stop at red lights and stop signs, travel on interstate highways, use the internet, go to public school, live in a town or city that collects your trash every week and plows your streets when it snows, you have been enjoying the fruits of socialist collective effort for the betterment of all and have no reason to fear more of the same.

COVID vaccines and treatments must be free of charge to all. The incalculable and ongoing sacrifices of the front-line medical community must be memorialized for all time.

The ocean is still coming, and the planet is on fire. All the vaccines in the world will not save us if our own climate burns us out and washes us away.

… and Donald Trump will be president for another 19 long days. I dread January 6, when Trump’s increasingly violent supporters may act out with all manner of mayhem.

There is no promise whatsoever that 2021 will be one damn bit better than this bag of snakes we relegate today to the fire of history.

Yes, the new year could be worse. Probably, it will be just as bad at least, unless our luck changes. Maybe, just maybe, it will be better, but only if we get out of our own way for once and let common sense and science drive the bus for a few blocks.

One thing is certain: It will be better only if we work together to shout down the dying wail of the failed way that brought us here.

We must love one another or die,” wrote Auden. For once, in this new year, let’s give that a try.

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