I have always thought that the mark of a decent human is the ability to admit when you have got something wrong, and in that vein, I would like to begin today’s column with an acknowledgment that I have made a mistake. A huge, glaring error. A gigantic miscalculation, a whopping lapse of judgement. An absolute humdinger of a cock up. Yes, dear reader – I owe you an apology. For back in December of last year, when all we had to worry about was Brexit (do you remember that?), I called 2020 wrong.
Here is what I wrote on December 21, 2019, when I thought that the worst thing in the world was having two general elections in just under three years. “While this decade has of course lasted exactly as long as any other decade, it feels more like two because of the amount of news that has been crammed into it… wouldn’t it be amazing if we could look forward to a slower, more stable decade, one where we let life unfold at its own pace instead of screaming and shouting because everything isn’t perfect RIGHT NOW, GODDAMIT! The millennium has had its period of teenage angst, and now we must hope, for the good of everyone, that it finally settles down.”
Oh boy, I misjudged that one.
Now, as we stand at the midpoint of the year, I wonder how I could have been so naive, a lone Pollyanna even in the face of an onslaught of news that said “be more Eeyore”. Within days, my optimism was tested sorely, with the devastating fires in Australia, the situation in Iran and the resignation of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as senior royals. Then came the reports of a strange new virus in China. “I’m not worried about this,” I told my husband, confidently, one evening in January. “It’s nothing!”
If this column was a movie, a tumbleweed would now blow through it.
By February, I was watching clips of locked down citizens in Wuhan, shouting out of their windows at each other to keep going and be strong. It sent a shiver down my spine. “That will never happen here,” I said, ignorant to the fact that we were all watching this novel coronavirus come towards us in slow motion. By the end of February I had travelled to America for work, unaware that within weeks I would not be allowed to step foot on US soil, and that within months I wouldn’t want to anyway, so strongly had my eyes been opened to the police brutality I had previously been too blinded by my privilege to see.
But I am getting ahead of myself. In March, we started rationing toilet paper, and we stopped getting close to one another, and every day at 5pm we would switch on the news and wonder what was going to happen next. We watched Italy go, then Spain and France, and eventually we started begging the Government to lock us in our homes, too. By April I was homeschooling, and wondering how not to squander my one daily trip out of the house, and if I thought things might get better at this point, I was wrong, oh so wrong, for this was the easy part of the year, the part where we were able to shut ourselves away from the world and pretend that this was going to be the moment that finally brought us all together.
But by May, it had become clear that we are not all in this together, the pandemic exposing – as pandemics historically have a habit of doing – the huge divisions in society. We discovered that there was not just one rule for them and another for the rest of us, but that within that there were also several different outcomes depending on your race, age and physical vulnerabilities. Now, as we enter June, eyes turn to the US, where it is hard to tell what is real news footage and what is an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. America is coughing. How long before the rest of us start sneezing?
And there is so much talk of “getting back to normal”. But I realise now that for many people, this is normal. It is normal to be locked away and marginalised because you have a disability; it is normal to be ignored and forgotten by society because you are old; it is normal to be treated badly because your skin is not white. And we must never, ever go back to normal. As Barack Obama said last week: “it falls on all of us, regardless of race or station, to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”
Perhaps this year has been exactly as bad as it needed to be – and for many, it has been as bad as it has always been. The Pollyanna in me says that as awful as 2020 has been, it has also presented us with an opportunity to listen and learn. The real question now is how many of us choose to take it.
Read Byrony Gordon at telegraph.co.uk every Saturday, from 9am