Good riddance to 2020.
This pandemic year has taught us many lessons. Some haven’t been so bad: we’ve learned how to bake, use Zoom, and found exquisite corners of Prospect Park we didn’t know existed.
Other lessons have been far harder: How to apply for unemployment. How to mourn together without hugs.
Many were lessons that it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for us to learn: To tip delivery workers generously and in cash. To fight for better health care for all. To make sure all students have good broadband at home. That Black lives matter.
As the year turns, I’m thinking especially about lessons that can make us better prepared for what lies ahead.
In that spirit, here are three of my top takeaways from this rotten year:
1) We need a transformation in how and what work we value.
Some of the best moments of the year were the ones on the stoop clanging pots to cheer for frontline workers — nurses and doctors, of course, but also subway drivers, sanitation workers, and workers all along the food chain, from farm to app.
Unfortunately, when it comes to actually valuing that work, our society is often at its worst. Food workers are among the least-paid and worst-protected, from corporate agriculture to DoorDash delivery. We still underpay our EMTs and home health aides.
Out of the Great Depression, our society fundamentally changed how we value work and meet needs. Will we do that again? It’s up to us. There’s some reason to worry that this crisis, with all its separations, is sapping rather than building our empathy.
But we can change it. How do I know? Well, at our last City Council meeting of the year, we passed the “just cause” bill, protecting fast-food workers from being fired for no reason — giving them a bit of job security, and a lot of dignity.
It’s just one sector, in one city. But as Steven Greenhouse wrote in The American Prospect, it could help launch a revolution in how we view work in America.
2) We need to get a lot better at preparing for and responding to crises.
We’re not programmed to see crises coming. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I did not understand this one early enough.
But what matters is not finger-pointing, blaming, or virtue-signaling. What matters is learning how we do better in the future. Because lots more crises are coming. And the biggest one, the climate crisis, we can see all too clearly. What we do now will determine how devastating it is, and who pays the price.
We must — and we can — get ready for the many storms, geographic upheavals, and economic instability it will bring. We must learn to surge resources to those who need them most and to build a stronger social safety net to soften the blow of the next crisis.
We can use the COVID crisis as a reminder to get ready, or we can boil like frogs in a pot. It really is up to us.
3) Solidarity is everything (or, at least, it’s an awful lot).
The pandemic phrase I remain most irritated with is “social distancing.” We could have called it “physical distancing,” and made clear that it is one important form of “social solidarity” — acting together to keep each other safe.
Government can and should have been a tool for that: Taxing the rich in order to enable people (including undocumented folks) to stay home. Getting essential workers the protective equipment and pay they deserve. Paying businesses to cover their rent and keep workers employed and insured.
The best things this year were the ways that people showed up for each other: Mutual aid organizations delivering food and medicine. Callers checking in on older neighbors. Teens setting up tutoring programs for younger students. Millions marching for Black lives.
As Rebecca Solnit teaches, the solidarity and generosity we find in crisis holds the potential to change ourselves, to change each other, to change our systems. There are no guarantees, and it won’t be easy. But it’s the task of our time.
There is light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Every day now, the sunlight lasts a little longer and comes a little sooner.
Let’s use that light — and these lessons — to make 2021 the start of something better.