Yes, we’re starting — like last time around — with a silver lining on a worldwide plague: the coronavirus vaccines! The Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson shots that gained widespread distribution this past spring arrived as medical triumphs, achieved in record speed through global cooperation and scientific gumption. Finally, after more than a year in which people were isolated from each other, restaurants could reopen; grandparents could hug their grandkids; normal life, or at least a tentative semblance of it, could resume. We’d also be remiss not to note the remarkable progress in preventing diseases less present in today’s headlines — malaria and HIV/AIDS foremost among them.
All that time apart taught us things we’ll hang on to, even after that dreamed-of day sometime in the future when we can all discard our masks. The need to find a vaccine, fast, spurred scientists to impressive advances in coding diseases. The rest of us learned how to take advantage of the digital age: innovations abounded in telemedicine and remote work, and we began to commune as never before with faraway friends and family. We can keep that up in sickness and in health.
A fresh start
President Biden was inaugurated, marking the beginning of what we still hope can become — despite the bumps along the way in 2021 — an era of healing, restored global leadership and good old-fashioned governing.
To kick off that renaissance, the United States reentered the Paris climate agreement. That’s only one step toward preventing the planet from warming past a critical threshold; the country must do more to curb emissions here and push others to cut down in equal measure. Even the executive order signed this month tasking the government with reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 isn’t enough without Congress passing a comprehensive policy that charts a national transition off polluting energy. But restored regulations and new goals embraced by this administration are a sharp and welcome turn from the total abdication of responsibility by its predecessor.
Protecting our environment
So, too, should we celebrate the White House bringing back protection to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and other monuments — protecting natural grandeur, Indigenous tribes’ sacred land and delicate ecosystems along with it.
A more diverse White House
The new White House filled its ranks with an unprecedentedly diverse group of public servants. This year saw the country’s first female vice president — as well as its first Black and South Asian one — in Kamala D. Harris, along with its first female treasury secretary in Janet L. Yellen and its first Native American Cabinet secretary in Deb Haaland at the Interior Department.
The coup failed
A violent insurrection attempted to circumvent the democratic processes under which the new administration would be formally authorized to assemble. The good news: The coup egged on by lame-duck President Donald Trump failed. Congress came back into session after a mid-certification siege on the U.S. Capitol, and Vice President Mike Pence did his ceremonial job of counting the electoral votes, despite pressure to overturn the legitimate 2020 election result and declare his boss victorious.
The few brave Republicans
The Republican Party mostly bought into — or at least indulged — the “big lie” of a stolen election, in a dispiriting betrayal of democracy. Still, a principled few of them refused to fall in line. Conservatives such as Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.) deserve praise for speaking out against the GOP’s corrupt new orthodoxy — even when it cost them politically, which in Ms. Cheney’s case included being stripped of her leadership position in the House Republican Conference.
And who says one party’s descent into unreality means compromise is impossible? After years of empty promises from both parties, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and the other members of a bipartisan group managed to push a massive infrastructure package through Congress and onto Mr. Biden’s desk, to the tune of $1.2 trillion. The merits of what was left in and what was left out are obviously up for debate, but the achievement represented by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s passage was remarkable in an era otherwise marred by partisan gridlock.
Speaking of jobs, 2021 saw a record number of Americans quitting them. That might sound like bad news, but maybe not. Workers took advantage of the fact that there were far more job openings than people looking for work — empowered at last to take a stand for better pay and better labor conditions. And pay did rise substantially this year, especially for the lowest-paid laborers. This year alone can’t compensate for decades of meager growth in worker pay, but the improvement is encouraging.
Another example of a new sense of economic empowerment: Americans are starting businesses at the fastest pace in years. There has been an especially large jump in people working for themselves as consultants and other sole proprietorships, as well as people entering arts businesses such as selling crafts on Etsy. Not all of these ventures are likely to survive. Still, it’s inspiring to see individuals — many of whom gained a sense during the pandemic that they should live their dreams now or never — feeling confident enough to try building something of their own.
Okay, we’re cheating a little with this one. Netflix’s hit show “Bridgerton” technically came out at the very end of 2020, but it was the talk of the world in early 2021 as viewers delighted in the Regency-era romance’s reinvention of the period drama — made modern by its soundtrack but also by its multiracial cast. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes proved that casting actors of all backgrounds in leading roles that once went only to White actors is about more than equality: It enhances the storytelling. And as storytelling goes, the movie revival of “West Side Story” arrived to critical acclaim to close off the year — respecting the much-loved original while respecting Puerto Rican culture, and sensitively if imperfectly exploring racial power dynamics, in a manner the 1961 film did not.
There’s more pop culture out there to take note of, but an icon of a decade gone by deserves a mention as this one dawns: Britney Spears was released from a cruel and unjust conservatorship. Her testimony in court also made achingly clear the fact that the singer was subject to callous treatment from the media at the peak of her stardom in the 2000s; now, a keener understanding of misogyny as well as the stigma surrounding mental health issues has engendered the empathy she always deserved and that we can hope will benefit others.
Lessons in compassion
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka helped this understanding grow by speaking out during the Olympics about their own psychological struggles — the gymnastics star and tennis phenom both stepping back from competition, choosing what they knew was best for them rather than buckling to the demands of a society that too often views top-tier athletes as objects for public consumption rather than human beings. We’re crossing our fingers we’ve learned a lesson about treating each other and ourselves with compassion.
The Chauvin verdict
Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts in the murder of George Floyd — whose death when the then-Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes set off a summer of protests against the too-frequent exercise of anti-Black police brutality nationwide. The verdict could never make up for a life unjustly taken. Nor is it an indictment of all law enforcement officers everywhere, most of whom do vital public safety work with honor and decency. But the jury’s refusal to accept that the officer was merely doing his job represented progress on which the country must continue to build as it strives to improve policing and reckon more broadly with its racist past and present. The same glimmer of promise emerged when in December three White men were convicted of murder for pursuing and killing 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while he was on a jog in their suburban neighborhood.
Another independence day
Juneteenth was made a national holiday. June 19 is the anniversary of the 1865 day when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Tex., finally heard of the Emancipation Proclamation issued two years before. The recognition of what many Black Americans have long honored informally as their real independence day was a long time coming, just as liberation itself was more than a century and a half ago.
Farewell to Confederate relics
The same goes for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. This relic of the post-Confederate era didn’t deserve its place of honor; the removal of the 40-foot stone pedestal covered in protest-art graffiti along with the general was more controversial than it should have been. Now, the city must make sure its history isn’t erased but rather confronted with honesty and humility.
Another point for accountability: New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) resigned following revelations of serial sexual harassment, showing that even the most powerful men can’t get away with abusing their power. At least, not always.
A helicopter called Ingenuity lifted off the surface of Mars, representing an opportunity for exploration whose import dwarfs the small but mighty machine. The success shows how much robots can achieve even in the most inhospitable conditions — and humanity played no small part.
A near miss
A less friendly missive from space arrived this month when a surprise asteroid almost hit Earth. The good news, of course, is it missed. See? 2021 could have been so much worse.
And last …
All the same, let’s not forget the very best thing about this year: It’s almost over!