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How to Turn 2020 Hardships Into a Teaching Moment

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

 As the fouled days of 2020 wane into history, the air is filled with relief and anticipation for a better 2021.  In some ways, the new year is guaranteed to be better by default, in that it should feature a pathway out of the current COVID nightmare.  But from the virus to the election to the culture, 2020 has been a harsh teacher, showing us things that have long needed fixing.  We can make 2021 and the ensuing years decidedly better if we grasp some hard-learned lessons and demand better of our leaders, our media and ourselves.

We learned in 2020 that we were willing to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans in order to fight a virus.  We sacrificed countless households and businesses on the altar of mitigating COVID spread.  America and the world are as mask- and distancing-obedient as we have ever been, yet spikes continue unabated.  This creates valid skepticism as to how necessary the edicts have been.  

It makes sense that masks impede a respiratory virus, but perhaps we did not have to bludgeon the economy, our schools and our overall way of life with draconian restrictions. COVID will not be our last virus. “Experts” well-versed on epidemiology but blind to real-world plights of citizens will be ready once again to lead us down the myopic road to shutdowns. Their voices belong in any policy debate, but they are not the only voices.

Our daily lives were skewered not just by  weaponized “science” but by the willing partnership of authoritarian leaders.  From blue-state governors to local overlords drunk on the addicting elixir of power, money and attention, elected officials made not just recommendations but sweeping pronouncements declaring what we were and were not permitted to do. Resisting these incursions risked rebukes from on high, or worse, punishment under law.  We would be wise to navigate the remaining COVID drama and future virus responses with heightened awareness of the human cost of focusing on only one type of health.

We learned in 2020 that much of the regulatory bog that has kept vital medicines off the market may have been unnecessary.  We have listened for years as bureaucrats have told us how they simply cannot clear the way for patients to benefit from the wonders of pharmaceutical science without years of delays and reams of redundant studies.

Some layers of caution are required; we cannot allow every mixture crafted in every lab to be introduced into every ailing person without testing.  But Operation Warp Speed showed us that urgency plus determination can yield remarkable results.  Overcautiousness may be  preferable to the hazards of insufficient oversight, but if the current COVID vaccines end up as a success story for the ages, that can inspire a similar faster-track approach to countless future remedies.

We learned in 2020 that the media bias we have stomached for decades can rise to a level of malice and corruption unforeseen by even the harshest of critics.  No one expected a liberal news culture to embrace a conservative agenda, but the viciousness aimed at Donald Trump makes its treatment of Ronald Reagan look like a back rub.  In the eyes of people who consider themselves actual reporters, Trump was a dictator, a white supremacist, a ruinous scourge that imperiled democracy itself.

No one should pretend that the media will regard current and future Biden administration concerns with anything resembling years of Russia collusion obsessions, but the widening media marketplace and the sizeable community of observers should ensure that the certainty of double standards and hypocrisy will be met with a bright light of clarifying attention.

We have learned that many who offer themselves as voices for racial healing and justice have little interest in either.  A nation properly repelled by the death of George Floyd was maligned as a racist hellhole by pundits, actors, athletes and other denizens of the high perches of fame. Millions who are willing to address issues of policing and other areas of racial discord have no interest in a dialogue that begins with slander, anti-patriotic displays and the soundtrack of eternal racial grievance.  Social-justice rhetorical excess has driven away a public that once embraced sports as a respite from the political gripes of the day, and further repelled consumers of a popular culture more interested in scolding us than entertaining us. 

This litany of 2020 eye-openers may seem honed toward a conservative point of view, but even Democrat-run states are seeing bipartisan pushback against virus-driven tyranny.  And dishonest media, endless race-baiting and regulatory excess are bad for everyone. So to conclude, maybe there are a few categories of our harsh education that have the power to unify and leave us genuinely grateful.  They range from small to sweeping. I long for restaurant normalcy, but the carry-out margarita looks like it’s here to stay.

I hope we can gather in normal workplaces again soon, but maybe we have discovered some mind-numbing meetings that we can cast aside for efficiency’s sake. I can’t wait for a return to church services packed to the rafters, but I know a lot of people who were not regular churchgoers who plugged into the comfort and inspiration of online services back in the spring. We can hope for their new church homes to bless them long after the virus has loosened its grip.

And finally, we can hope that as we reclaim our lives in 2021, we learn that we should take nothing for granted, from loved ones to a restaurant meal, from a weekend road trip to a full shelf of toilet paper.  When we can shake hands and hug again, let’s cherish the human connections that we have been denied. 

One way to ensure a better 2021 is to strive for improvement in the things that need it.  Those efforts will succeed if we collectively persist.  But the one thing we all have control over is how we conduct ourselves.  We will have plenty of time to address our quests for better leadership, better media or better behavior from others.  As we seek those things, the new year will be instantly better if we face its challenges with resilience, optimism and goodwill. 

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