Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
If 2020 has shown us anything, it has shown two things: the fragility and the endurance of the world we have created.
At the end of 2019, people across the world celebrated our first step into the 20s. But this year got off to a shaky start: Australian bushfires, Iran-US hostility and the death of Kobe Bryant weren’t how anyone wanted to welcome in the new decade.
Throughout February whispers of the “coronavirus” were increasingly heard and accompanied by an endless stream of jokes in university halls when someone downed a Corona beer, not comprehending the severity of the virus or how it would impact the world. A few weeks later and we’d be hastily packing to go home; lectures moved online, the nightclub shut, and we didn’t know when we’d be back. Johnson made his announcement that “you must stay home”, and just like that, things we had taken for granted were gone.
The precariousness of the situation, the fact that there was a problem which we couldn’t fix any time soon, was a shock. As humans, we like to see ourselves as the masters of our world. There’s no mountain we can’t climb, there’s no sea we can’t sail, and there’s no problem we can’t fix. And yet here was COVID-19, restricting our freedoms, changing our working lives and affecting our happiness.
The arbitrary nature of the society we had created was further showcased when we clapped for essential workers, whilst paying those we relied upon to keep society functioning 9% less than similar workers in non-key occupations. We discovered that many jobs, often the most highly paid, can be paused for a few months or at least reduced, whilst lower paid jobs, like cleaning and care work, became all the more valuable during a pandemic spread through poor hygiene, and affecting older citizens and those with weakened immune systems. This should have come as no surprise; in 2009 the New Economics Foundation published a report showing the unequal relationship between pay and social value of jobs. They found that the most valuable jobs, cleaners, childcare and waste processors, were often the least-well paid. This year we have been shown the extent and injustice of income inequality, and the inconsistency with which we assign value to different occupations.
Those of us privileged enough to have an abundance of free time and relative financial stability tried our hand at making Zoom quizzes, following YouTube gym sessions, learning new languages, reading more books, and skyping our nearest and dearest. We came together to support those most affected, donating £800 million more to charity in the first 6 months of the year than in the same period last year. We sang on balconies to feel connected; we ran 5km and donated £5 to the NHS, we educated ourselves on racial injustice and we appreciated what we had always taken for granted: simply being in the company of others.
Lockdown has improved the world’s resilience to uncertainty and change, and I hope, perhaps naïvely, encouraged a sense of international solidarity, faced with such a global problem. The whole world has now shared experiences of lockdowns, masks and isolation. We would do well to use our COVID-19 experience in the fight against climate change, taking a truly universal approach. We have seen how connected our nations are and it is up to all of us to work together as an international community.
We are all looking forward to the passing of 2020, but it is important to remember this year’s problems don’t disappear once the clock strikes midnight on the 31st December. COVID-19 won’t vanish, we will be another year closer to the point of no return before climate devastation, and we’ll likely have left the European Union by one hour. No-one can say what 2021 will bring; for all we know, a new virus is on its way to lock us down once more. But I am cautiously optimistic. The COVID-19 vaccine has started to be administered, giving us hope of a semi-normal summer. We may be able to gather in groups of more than six, and hug our grandparents, and, if not, we are better equipped to deal with future restrictions.
We should take comfort in our collective fragility and endurance. The fragility of our world, which has been demonstrated to many of us for the first time, makes it all the more necessary to appreciate what we have. Our endurance should comfort us, knowing that no matter how unprecedented times may become, we can work together and adapt. The world continues to turn. The seasons continue to change. And humanity lives on.