2020 held once unimaginable news. Perhaps the biggest headline was Coronavirus. Though well informed Americans had heard about a respiratory problem, coronavirus, spreading globally in January it may not have come to mainstream attention until the Trump team declared it a public health emergency in early February. By March America was fully involved in the Covid-19 pandemic and norms began to collapse. At years end 92% of all the souls dead from Covid were 55 years of age or older. Now, we move into 2021 heavy with the loss of 344,000 people (and still counting) whose lives were taken by Covid-19.
Though America has had pandemics before this one, Covid-19, is enabling doctors and scientists to learn more about our immune system than at any other time in history according to the Scientific American, and that bodes well for future understanding and breakthrough therapies. We also learned that global coordination is crucial to fighting flu, pandemics and potential viruses because Covid-19 made it crystal clear that we live in an interdependent global world. Lessons from Covid came pouring in for people in all walks of life. Businesses learned to build contingency plans and value employees, arts organizations learned to get even more creative to reach audiences, restaurants learned new ways to nourish customers, parents learned how to teach their kids and so forth. It was a year of adapting and learning. It was a year of trying very hard to reach audiences, customers, and, in some cases even our own families. It was a time of bonding together.
Though Covid is ongoing and still with us as we enter 2021 it wasn't the only story last year. The video taped death of George Floyd struck a nerve in Americans many of whom flowed into the streets from nearly every city and town demanding justice. Organizations, municipalities and institutions responded. The Yale School of Medicine called for racism to be declared a public health crisis citing systemic racism and inequitable policies as causes in high cortisol levels, disproportionately higher rates of chronic disease and covid deaths among the black population. Days of constructive protest, however, began breaking down into violence at night and new kinds of agitation sprung up. By April, a different cause sparked largely armed demonstrations. As in the 1918 flu epidemic Americans, wrapped in values of freedom and independence, launched mask protests outside city halls in many states. Those outbursts morphed into more general lockdown protests and, later in the year, Stop the Steal demonstrations. Like racial protests these also turned into violent clashes with one splinter group planning to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Widmer and overthrow the government. Yes, 2020 was a year of unrest. It was a year of confrontation. It was a moment in history when Americans challenged the strength of democracy and revisited our individualist culture.
Dwarfed by headline news other stories percolated in labs and research tanks. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won a Nobel Price in Chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR gene editing. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regular Interspaced Short Pallindromic Repeats and in 2020 CRISPR applications celebrated early success in tackling Sickle Cell Anemia, as well as possibly HIV and diseases caused by single genetic errors. Gene Editing is also spilling into science and industry in broader ways such as genetically altered animals and genetic testing.
Our 2020 scientists discovered luminescence generating proteins which could help improve cancer diagnostics, learned how bees intuit their bodies in space that could help robots navigate, and studied the exoskeleton of the IronClad beetle whose shell design shows materials specialists new ways to create battle hardened coatings. Advances in quantum studies, superconductors and Twistronics will lead the way to greater understanding of our everyday technology. Great advances to improve life on earth were met by equally exciting events in space. Maybe you saw the first Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in 400 years or have turned to the sky for Starlink's broadband service? The Elon Musk Starlink project uses a vast network of satellites to bring connectivity to underserved and rural areas. Musk's companion business SPACEX sent the first manned rocket in 9 years to dock at the International Space Station. “So rises a new era of American spaceflight, and with it the ambitions of a new generation continuing the dream,” a NASA spokesperson said. Or perhaps you celebrated 2020's news that we may not be alone in the universe. That debate, are we or are we not alone, still rages among astronomers yet there were more reasons to wonder if life exists in other galaxies as the video below explains. Could aliens already be here? In 2020 the U.S. navy declassified pilot footage of unidentified flying objects and an Israeli official announced that there's actually "an agreement between the U.S. government and the aliens." It was a year of curiosity. It was a time of expansion. It was an assuring year when America's innovation moved forward despite instability and distraction.
Alien assistance and other habitable planets may be needed if climate change continues to warm the Earth. In 2020 California fires broke records for land scorched and flame intensity. The number of acres burned was larger than all acres burned over the 67 year period between 1999 and 1932. “Temperature is really important to fire. Temperature is key. The warmer it is, the longer the fire season,” Mike Flannigan of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science told the Guardian. 16 separate weather events exceeded a billion dollars in damage last year. Partly because of the staggering cost of climate change industries are beginning to convert to less damaging energy sources. Green energy supplied an all time 25% of America's energy in 2020. Yet climate change isn't only about energy it's also about health. The Lancet, a medical publication, links climate change with stress, asthma, heat related deaths, mental health conditions and the weakening of systems we rely on for our nourishment such as arable land. Perhaps most concerning is the way climate change is promoting the spread of infectious disease particularly zoonotic viruses, pathogens that pass from animals to humans, such as Covid-19. It was a year of devastation, a year of storms. Was it the year we moved decisively to try to save the planet?
Change gripped American policies in 2020. The Supreme Court swung decisively conservative after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. The court hasn't been that conservative since the 1930's. In addition Senate Majority Leader McConnell's goal of leaving no court vacancy behind enjoyed success in 2020 by tilting lower courts far to the right ideologically. In a victory for aging Americans The Supporting Older Americans Act passed in March carrying forward programs established by the Older Americans Act that expired in 2016. In addition 1 Billion dollars were set aside in the CARES Act for Older Adults and people with disabilities. As well as strengthening nutritional resources, elder abuse initiatives, and family caregiving programs these allocations establish support for the vaccination of Americans aged 65 plus. Policy didn't favor older Americans who immigrate to America though. That too swung conservative as the Public Charge Rule was invoked. The rule narrows who we accept at our borders moving us away from, "your tired, your poor and your huddled masses" to healthier and wealthier applicants. Covid also hit older immigrants harder as barriers to health care, language differences, and technology problems made more difficult to survive and get medical help. Need I say that the hotly contested election of 2020 went to the Democrats signaling more change in policies in the year to come. It was a year of conservative resurgence, a year of isolationism. Was it a year of changing values or the year we reaffirmed American values?
If 2020 showed us anything it's that more change awaits us in 2021. Yet our democracy, the brightest in the world, is surely strong enough to endure ideological changes as long as democratic elections prevail. In 2020 we tested our values even as nature tested our resilience and resolve. We tackled our historic roots, took them into public streets, and argued their merit. We bonded together against the pandemic and we argued with one another about our individual rights. What will America symbolize in the twenty-first century? With 2020 in our rear view mirror we plunge forward with no clear consensus. Yet we remain united, uneasily peaceful, and democratic. May the new year hold peace and understanding, dear reader, stay safe.
Update 21 Jan 21
We have so many videos of great artists performing for us from their own homes because of the pandemic. One way to look at it is that it's not the real thing...it's not on stage and in an audience. Another way to see it is Wow, what a technological marvel. One friend said, "how interesting to see people in their surroundings." Today I read a comment on the thread in this video by Yo Yo Ma that reminded me what a marvel and gift it is to be seeing these amazing artists as they really are from the privacy of their own home. We've never had so much democratic access to the lives of artists. This may be a benefit of the pandemic that we will continue to appreciate.