The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 2020 is halfway done. Let’s define what we’ve just survived.

People pass "2020" numbers installed to celebrate the New Year in Moscow in December 2019.
People pass "2020" numbers installed to celebrate the New Year in Moscow in December 2019. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly that police injected Elijah McClain with ketamine before his death. Paramedics administered the drug. It also could be read to suggest that McClain’s death occurred in 2020. While McClain died in 2019, the details of his death became widely known this year. This version has been updated.

We’ve come only halfway through 2020. It already feels like a decade.

Make that several decades — and maybe make a drink while you’re at it. I can’t be the only one trying to get my bearings.

This is a year when life is whooshing forward at warp speed, and yet so much has been placed on hold. It is a year that wants to hark back to 1918, 1929 and 1968: Protests on top of a pandemic inside of an economic disaster adjacent to an upcoming election endured by an anxious public led by an impetuous man who wants us to believe it will all just “go away.”

You may be fortunate enough to avoid covid-19, but we are all experiencing some kind of vertigo.

As the kids would say, 2020 was already extra before the pandemic hit. Massive Australian brushfires. The botched count in the Iowa caucuses. President Trump acquitted on articles of impeachment. An Iranian missile attack on bases housing U.S. troops. Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashing into a mountain. And that was just the first eight weeks.

It has been a season of retreat where most of us, against our instincts, have tried to watch the world from a distance. The dispatches arrive on screens that serve as windows to a world gone sideways. There is a segment of society still going to bars and getting haircuts without donning masks or gloves or apparent concern for fellow human beings. Those “happy-go-luckys” don’t seem to believe in the science that says social distancing and protective gear will save lives and flatten a curve that looks like a steep stairway to heaven.

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When we finally emerge on the other side — whatever that looks like — we’ll have a lot of work to do. As we go through the mental scrapbooking in an attempt to take stock, what are the images or moments or actions that will best define what we’ve just survived? Here’s what that catalogue might include so far:

●Health-care workers in head-to-toe protective gear.

●The long lines at the food banks.

●The banging of pots at 7 p.m.

●The face masks.

●The ventilators.

●The elbow bumps.

●A family talking to Grandma through a closed window at the nursing home.

●Mass graves for novel coronavirus victims.

●Political rallies despite calls for social distancing.

●A presidential candidate speaking to the world from his basement.

●A president barking at the world on Twitter.

●Funerals where no one can get out of their car.

●Empty subways, empty stadiums.

●The grocery store with empty shelves that used to be filled with paper products or dried beans.

●The essential workers on the early bus.

●The grocery cashiers behind plexiglass.

●The cops in riot gear. The tear gas in the streets. The attorney general in the park. The National Guard.

●Falling statues.

●Burning buildings.

●Protesters. Oh, so many protesters. Some carrying signs. Some carrying guns.

●The jogger hunted by the pickup truck.

●The Wendy’s parking lot.

●The revelation of the violin-playing introvert who was stopped by police last summer and injected with a dose of ketamine by paramedics.

●A knee in the neck. A face on the pavement.

●The gasp — “I can’t breathe” — from the victims of police violence. From the victims of covid-19. From the masses facing a stack of bills they cannot pay.

●The gloved hand.

●The raised fist.

●The raised Bible.

●Black Lives Matter in massive yellow letters.

●Black. With a capital B.

It is easier to focus on the intensity of a single moment because it feels less relentless that way. It is unrelenting nonetheless.

There are blessed moments of whimsy, resilience and character. We spy them in our partners and spouses and co-workers — and in perfect strangers. We send up a little mantra of gratitude when we witness them.

We see how confinement has stoked creativity: We see choirs singing together in a trellis of little videos, we hear DJs who turn the world into their dance floor, we “go to” Zoom parties, and we watch TikToks of families dancing in unison with skill and abandon as if James Brown and Fred Astaire had traveled back to Earth for private lessons.

We have taught ourselves how to adapt. How to survive. How to sacrifice. How to find laughter despite despair. How to find courage. How to remain tethered in our collective solitude, which has been so much easier for some than for others. There are too many without food. Too many have lost jobs. Too many who will face eviction. Hopefully, that won’t be another outrage normalized.

As we celebrate the anniversary of our independence this year, that word serves up extra helpings of irony. We are all chained to new rules, new mandates, new markings that tell us where to stand, where not to sit. We are also realizing as a nation that we are chained to a difficult history that has caught up with us amid a global standstill. A long-armed ghost that demands a reckoning.

This virus reminds us that we are connected to each other. Our history is shared. Our survival depends on collective action to protect ourselves, to protect others, to protect the idea of tomorrow or next month or next year.

But first we have to get through the rest of this year.

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