2021: Another Year In Silver Linings
And there it is: 2021, gone in a flash.
If 2020 was a long, interminable spectacle of slowly rising waters, 2021 was wind and lightning. Last year often felt like endless sameness, while this past year seemed to lurch from status quo to status quo. From the darkest days of the pandemic to the Capitol insurrection, vaccination to the Delta surge, good old ’21 never let us get our bearings, but it’s times like these when it’s most important to also remember our moments of triumph, joy, and progress.
It’s been a long time since we experienced anything resembling “normal,” or a year most people would generally classify as “good.” That means we must look a little more carefully to find what was good, and to embrace those as signifiers that hope is not yet lost. That’s the whole point of hope; it’s never spent. And when things are at their darkest is precisely when we need to hold hope tightest.
So let’s run down some of the past year’s silver linings.
1. There was ultimately a peaceful transition of power.
I know that, with good reason, January 6th occupies a much larger place in our historical imagination than Biden’s inauguration two weeks later. The insurrection and breach of the Capitol — the first in two-hundred some-odd years — is certainly a major development in American history precisely for its lack of precedent; in contrast, January 20th simply saw the same thing happen that happens every four years like clockwork: one presidential term ended, and another began. The fact that it’s so unremarkable is precisely what makes it incredibly so.
The Capitol insurrection was, without meaningful doubt, a deliberate attempt to use violence to overturn the election. Its failure doesn’t negate that fact. But Biden’s inauguration, on the very same steps, could have been marred by even greater violence. To me, at least, that speaks to a deep-seated reluctance, on the part of the national body, to jettison democratic processes, and in the moment, we identified courage in remarkable places. Even Mike Pence, for all our pointed disagreements, acquiesced to the moment and placed his country over his president.
The danger is far from over, but after the Capitol attack, I nervously held my breath as Inauguration Day approached. I’m grateful for being able to breathe a sigh of relief, however tentative it may be.
2. Vaccination is widespread, and it works.
Vaccines started rolling off production lines at the end of 2020, but it would be months before most Americans got a jab in their arm. The three approved vaccines in the United States have, combined, ended up in the arms of about 237 million Americans — 200 million of which are fully vaccinated — a herculean and awe-inspiring public health program that succeeded despite some ongoing widespread resistance. It would be much better to have 100% vaccination rather than 71% partial vaccination, but we are slowly and surely getting there, and I remain hopeful that more people will sign up to get vaccinated.
The vaccines work. They work really well. Highly vaccinated areas have lower infection and mortality rates than their less-vaccinated counterparts. And even more, the very structure of these new shots is revolutionary; mRNA vaccines are faster to develop, less invasive, and more precise than older vaccines. This transformative technology will make it easier for us to fight new strains of COVID — and to fight new viruses in the future.
3. An HIV vaccine is in sight.
For 40 years, AIDS has ravaged human populations. From the initial outbreaks in the gay community (which, in barely more than a decade, it absolutely devastated) to it’s terrifying prevalence in poorer parts of the world, over 36 million people have died from complications arising from related illnesses. Today, nearly 38 million people worldwide are living with HIV.
While as yet there is no vaccine available to the public, this past year, a team of Japanese researchers released findings indicating a vaccine candidate eliminated the virus among a group of monkeys used in lab trials. While far from a silver bullet against the notoriously hard to kill and rapidly-mutating virus, when combined with advancements in mRNA vaccine development, an end to AIDS might be on the horizon, and with it, the ability to save countless lives.
4. Labor is gaining bargaining power and spurring a growing movement for higher wages, stronger benefits, and better work-life balance.
Over the course of 2020, the world fundamentally lurched in a strange new direction. The economic dislocations caused by the first waves of lockdown haven’t entirely abated yet, but they created an unanticipated little wrinkle: it disrupted the carefully calibrated labor supply. In December 2019, there were roughly 100,000 more jobs than applicants, which kept competition tight and let employers set terms more or less at will. But by the fall of 2021, there were 3 million more positions than applicants. That created a wild new phenomenon: labor is realizing it’s bargaining power.
The Great Resignation, as it’s being called, has seen workers start to quit in startling numbers to seek higher pay and better conditions, confident in their ability to do so in a market where employers are struggling to get butts in seats. I don’t know how long this will last, but I’m hopeful it will be long enough to get a better status quo in place following four decades of stagnant wages and slashed benefits. For the first time in a long time, we have a real chance at changing how we think about work, how we treat each other, and how we do business all for the better.
5. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The pandemic isn’t over. But it does seem to be weakening. The Omicron variant, while massively more transmissible and far more likely to evade vaccine protection (from what we’ve seen thus far), it also appears to create a much, much milder version of the disease. I’m not a scientist, but perhaps the fittest version of SARS-CoV-2 is the one that spreads widely and doesn’t kill you. The speed with which that seems to be happening is startling, which I would expect has something to do with how quickly the vaccine was developed and distributed; from the POV of a virus, staying alive required an ability to slip under the radar and continue spreading, and the same mutations that make that possible also reduce its lethality.
2022 is around the corner, and there’s no way to know where things are headed. But every year, I make sure to find reasons for hope.