I’ve recently noticed that, when something bad happens, people have taken to lumping it in with all the other awful events of 2020. It’s as though this year is cursed, a write-off. Much optimism surrounds the coming of a new year—2021—where the problems of the past twelve months will slowly melt away. In reality, though, the only thing that’s melting away anytime soon is Greenland’s glaciers.
The events of the past year (including, but not limited to: a global pandemic, deepening global inequality, the worst recession since the Great Depression, continued state-sanctioned violence against Black people and other marginalised groups, as well as worsening climate change) are not unexpected flukes: they are simply the unmasking of problems that have been festering for years or even decades.
Issues of systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, including state-sanctioned violence against certain groups, have been visible for decades. When the media say that racism, anti-Blackness, and transphobia have recently ‘entered the public consciousness’, what they really mean is that some white, non-Black, and cisgender people, respectively, have recently noticed that people of particular identities get killed a lot (frequently by the police). It’s not like the oppression was somehow hidden before 2020—this is simply the year in which many white, cisgender people were finally willing to acknowledge it.
As historic as it felt to go to Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, DC, or to see the first woman of colour to be elected Vice President of the USA, not much has truly changed. There have been no major policy changes as a result of the protests, and Joe Biden does not seem like a radical politician who will sweep aside the old ways of governing. If anything, he is the embodiment of the centrist incrementalists who have held back progress.
The issue is the same with healthcare, unemployment benefits, and so on. The pandemic and recession have laid bare issues that were already present, but apart from stopgap measures from Rishi Sunak (briefly known as “Dishy Rishi” before everyone realised he was still screwing over self-employed and working-class people) or the Federal Reserve, nothing has fundamentally changed. The pandemic was a perfect excuse to increase NHS funding in the UK and provide universal healthcare in the USA (plus increased jobless benefits), but instead, nothing happened. Seeing the cronyism at play in awarding PPE contracts, and the measly covid relief measures, it becomes clear that American and British governments (amongst many others) do not serve the public interest—they only serve the powerful.
This global pandemic is likely not the last we will experience—globalisation and environmental exploitation have seen to that—nor, judging by the severity of the third wave in many countries, does it look like we’ll be prepared for the next one. But it will also not end in spring, the way people seem to think. Some epidemiologists are suggesting that Covid will become endemic (ie, never go away), with vaccines only helping reduce the number of deaths, but not eradicating the virus. As for social distancing, it will likely still be necessary for quite some time. So much for ‘back to normal’.
The pandemic and recession have been exacerbated by, and further worsened, global inequality. For at least a decade, productivity has increased while wages have stagnated, leaving only a few rich people getting richer (a recent example being the dizzying stock market rally since March, which is often compared to the dot-com bubble of the late 90s). Given the systemic forms of oppression in our society, those few people whose wealth increases tend to be white, rich, able, cisgender men.
I admire optimism (in times like these it can be an important tonic to our depressing reality) but I also think it can be dangerous, leading people to wait for change to happen instead of working to bring it about. The one group that can happily be optimistic about their own prospects, is the aforementioned rich, white, able, cisgender men. As Donald Trump shows, they can set up endless numbers of businesses that go bankrupt, evade taxes, and flush money down literal golden toilets while still getting richer. Or, á la Koch brothers, they can actively work to entrench the ideals and inequalities that benefit them in our political systems without ever having to run for office. If you start a rocket company, not even the sky’s the limit.
Some (dare I say, most) people do not have such luxury—survival itself is often difficult enough. Social mobility is dead, and so anyone who did not start off insanely privileged will likely end that way as well. And, as I have tried to make obvious, nothing relating to any of the issues I’ve highlighted (amongst many others) is likely to change anytime soon: solving such problems requires large-scale, long-term coordinated movements with concrete demands and a way of holding powerful people to account, none of which currently exist. The much-vaunted “new normal” of 2020 is not new at all—it is the same “normal” that has been around for decades.
So, as the New Year comes around, please don’t be optimistic about the future, or go around saying ‘you’ll see, it’ll get better’: it won’t. Be a realist. Nothing will change. The world will remain a stagnant, sewage-filled pond, slowly choking on an algae bloom, until enough of us finally decide to get up and do something about it.