This being the last Sunday of 2020, journalists everywhere are ranking the major events of the year as they try to organize normally unrelated news stories into something that helps readers and viewers remember the previous 12 months.
In most years, people had legitimate disagreements over which event dominated the news of the year. It could be an election, a crime story, a disaster or any number of things.
This year, though, the choice is easy. Who can doubt that the novel coronavirus, also known in different contexts as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, was the dominant story of 2020?
Looking ahead to 2021, it could remain the dominant story for a long time to come.
The coronavirus brought many changes to American society. It also highlighted many differences among us that we didn’t talk about much.
Among them was the power of government in health emergencies to alter how we live and do business. No one doubts that government officials must take extreme steps in the short term to deal with disasters such as floods or earthquakes. But how much authority should they take upon themselves when we’re facing a disease that will be with us for a long, long time? Where do they get the authority to close some businesses while their competitors remain open? Where in their state constitutions do they have the power to tell us who may gather in public for a football game, a political rally or a worship service? Where were legislators during all this?
As part of that, mask mandates revealed the divisions among us as to how far we will let government tell us what to wear, where and when. There is a line between individual freedom and responsibility toward others. Mask mandates showed us there remains a difference of opinion on where that line is. If you don’t believe it, go to a grocery store on a busy day and count the number of unmasked people. Their civil disobedience is their own small rebellion against what they see as government overreach.
The new vaccines were welcomed by many of us, but not by all. A large number of people aren’t early adopters of any new technology, trend or medicine. They want other people to be the lab rats. While some of us can’t wait for our doses, others don’t trust something developed so quickly.
Likewise, when people see news reports or internet memes of high-ranking government officials not complying with the advice they give to the rest of us, trust in the system diminishes that much more.
Meanwhile, others wonder why we can’t trust the government to do the right thing now so we can put COVID-19 behind us as soon as possible so fewer people will die from the disease or suffer long-term health problems from it. We can sort these questions out later.
None of this is going away anytime soon. COVID-19 will be with us for a few more months. It’s revealed much about us already. The question for 2021 is what lessons we will have learned for the long run and what divisions among us remain to be healed.