2020 has been an extraordinary year. Extraordinary in the true sense of the word in that it was “very unusual, special, unexpected, or strange” (Cambridge Dictionary. Available: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/extraordinary).
Here where I live in New South Wales, Australia we welcomed 2020 while living under the threat of bush fires. My husband and I rang in the new year at a friend’s house in the area, where I was patiently seated while recovering from my fresh bicycle accident. (I had fallen off my bike earlier that day: riding at around 11am in 30+ degree heat.) My knees, palms and one elbow were covered in bandages while I continued to bleed into the night. It wasn’t the most comfortable state to be in when “welcoming” a fresh year, but it seemed to be an omen of things to come.
Sure enough, towards the end of February the World Health Organisation announced that we had a pandemic on our hands. This coincided with my upcoming birthday, so I jokingly asked my husband to get me the board game “Pandemic” for my birthday – which I had heard was a very good game besides. When I did receive the gift I’d asked for, I felt too guilty to play it as I saw the awful and very real situation unfold around the globe.
In around April my husband and I finally felt OK about learning how to play this game. To our delight, it wasn’t only very enjoyable and informative, but it taught us about the value of coming together and working as a team during an unfolding global threat. We have since played Pandemic countless times and enjoyed it thoroughly. I have often wondered whether particular leaders have ever played it. I can’t help but think that even just learning the rules (which takes time) would be a huge advantage for handling the current situation. So many decisions taken during this time seemed/ seem to be ill-informed or ignorant of the real health risk that was/ is unfolding. For those of us who are not educated in any health-related field, I would like to suggest that good health should be the foundation of every society. We cannot focus on economics at the cost of health or indeed, lives. Health should always come first.
The first wealth is health.– Ralph Waldo Emerson
2020 has been a huge year. It’s been a year of watching COVID case numbers rise, it’s been a year of social unrest, and it’s been a year of scientific information making headlines: as it rightfully should. Despite the unfolding tragedy of COVID-19 as it continues to wreak havoc on our people, I can’t help but reflect on my thoughts as the situation was first unfolding.
We needed this
For far, far too long we have been – at least in “the West” – obsessed with wealth creation and materialism. Our goals have largely been focused on accumulating assets that would appreciate over time and give us “security”. However, we have largely been ignorant of the fact that this “security” is temporary and has come at a steep price. We see more inequality than ever before, with large swathes of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, while a rising underclass is threatening this status quo. How can we as a society, continue to justify the neglect of people who need assistance and resources to live a good life? After all, how much wealth does a person *actually* need? According to Maslow and many other respected philosophers (such as Buddha), we do not require millions or even billions of dollars to experience satisfaction with life. Satisfaction does not cost much money, but it does cost time and a willingness to introspect.
If nothing else, COVID has shown up the many flaws in “successful” societies. As a member of a species that is responsible for destroying large swathes of the natural environment in the name of “progress”, I feel that this pandemic has served – at least – as a wake-up call to many of our societies. After all, the virus probably came from our deeper exploration into the wilderness and our continued “butting up” against previously untouched parts of nature. We are, after all, ourselves an animal. We are no better or worse than a bat, an ant or indeed any other creature on this planet. The damage that a virus has done to our human world is extraordinary and measurable: and yet we cannot even see the virus with the naked eye. Does this not demonstrate how fragile we all are? We are all, after all, made up of the same stuff as each other: skin, bone, blood. None of us is worth any more or any less than any one other. It is sad to think about how passionately we fight against each other due to minor differences in beliefs or outward appearances.
the natural world needed a break
The damage we have done to the environment is devastating. I myself have been an avid traveller for several years, and the inaccessibility of travel has helped me see the error of our ways. The wanderlust that has been endemic in Western cultures has just been another layer of consumerism. On my last big trip in 2019 my disgust with tourism was growing: I had seen one too many selfie sticks, one too many posers, and one too many cities full of people wearing fashionable clothes who appeared to be oblivious to what those places really had to offer, deep below the surface of a glossy brochure. My growing distate was tied to the narcissistic culture of social media. For 10+ years I had been a social media consumer and I was seeing the grossness of it all. I could see how social media was effectively training us to seek instant gratification and be inpatient. These things do not help when a pandemic is knocking at your door! To change our behaviours and see through a global shift like this would require a lot of patience and discipline. Unfortunately our consumerist culture has been training us out of these skills.
While we were in lockdown, I really noticed the birds. Our neighbourhood is quiet, but the calls of various bird species are everpresent and shifting over the seasons. I have adored hearing the calls of pied butcherbirds on our balcony, the chirps of rainbow lorikeets in the mornings, the coos of doves by our front lawn, and the aggressive but charming squawks of wild cockatoos in the afternoons. The calls of birds have reminded me of the wildness and fecundity of nature itself: and how small our part is as humans within the world. During lockdown, I imagined having a bird’s-eye view: flying over us humans as we angsted over the latest number of new COVID cases and tore our hair out over Donald Trump’s latest tweets. The birds continue to live: to search for food, chat with each other and look after their families. They are oblivious to our very human woes. I hope we can take our focus off of ourselves for a while. We need to look after this earth and help protect all creatures that inhabit it. We have a lot of capabilities to do good for every living thing.
We have a lot of work ahead of us
COVID has exposed the most frail parts of our human systems including inadequate social supports, the rejection of evidence-based information (such as the rejection – by some – of the value of face masks to help stop the spread of the virus), and inequitable access to healthcare. There is a lot of work for us to do in 2021. Let’s take this time to rest and re-imagine how the world can look like as we move forward. As humans we have a lot of power on this earth, and we can choose to be responsible to it and to each other. This planet is our home, as it is the home of every living creature we know. We need to be mature about this situation, and work together to improve conditions for every living thing. After all, we share our lives with them, whether or not we realise it. Our time on this “pale blue dot” is so very transitory, so why not work towards making it a happy existence for ourselves and for our neighbours?
A couple of months ago I realised that all of these events unfolding over 2020 was somehow perfect. We often talk about “20:20 vision”: the notion that you can see clearly when your vision is 20:20. In addition, we often say that “hindsight is 20:20”: meaning that when we look back on past events, we have clarity that was not necessarily there at the time that the events took place. I believe that in the years to come, we will look back at the year that was 2020 and see it for what it was: a year of global change, shifting priorities and a great reset for the world. It may be just the shift we – as humans – needed. Although it has come at a huge cost.
Meanwhile I sit here completing this post while I await the result of my COVID-19 swab this morning. I can’t help but wonder at the consequences if my result is positive. I am hoping that it is negative, but then I wonder what it has felt like for the over 80 million people who have tested positive to date. I am – potentially – just one person in this very large pool. But then again, this whole thing started off as one person who caught the virus from one animal.
If you ever question the impact you can have as one person, think about that for a second.
Let’s make a new year’s resolution (and keep it!) to contribute as much as we can with the capacity we have. By coming together we can help achieve peace and happiness for all living beings.
Happy New Year.