This column first appeared in Malta Today
Remember this time last year when the year 2020 had such a nice satisfying ring to it? It was a neat round number and sounded so full of promise.
We start each year with such hope, buying new diaries (for those who still use them), with their blank pages representing the ensuing days, weeks and months. By its very nature, the human spirit yearns for a fresh start and the belief that things can only get better.
12 months later, of course, we know better than to be fooled by such trivial, irrelevant things as arbitrary numbers. A recurring meme for this year was that a 2020 diary was one of the most useless things we bought. All last week the most common phrase was, ‘I can’t wait for this year to be over’ and for those who have lost loved ones, this is both heartbreaking and understandable. Those who have suffered in other ways because of Covid-19, whether mentally or financially, are also eager to put this year behind them, closing it like a chapter in their lives which they want to forget and, if possible, obliterate.
As the reporter in the just-released Netflix satire Death to 2020 says when told this would be a look back at this year, “why the f…would you want to do that?”
But it is also true that if we had to sit down and recall past events, any one year can bring us a mixture of ups and downs because that is just how life is. Every New Year’s Eve I see people writing retrospectives of the year which is about to end, and what they have been through and I am always puzzled about why they do it. Maybe it is a need to mark life’s journey somehow, since these days FB has become the historical account of our lives, popping up with memories and photos of what we did and said years ago, reminding us with alarming regularity how the years seem to be slipping through our fingers. (“What? That happened ten years ago? I was sure it was only five”). It’s a bit like a song you hear on the radio which takes you back and you hum along happily in sweet nostalgia, until the DJ bursts your bubble by telling you that it came out 30 years ago. Or when you are rudely reminded that the year 2000 was 20 years ago, and not just ten years ago as your mind stubbornly insists on thinking.
In any case, taking a leaf out of their book, I took a look back at what I wrote this year, and it’s no surprise that the Coronavirus dominated most of my columns, starting on 27 February with the question, “Would you rather panic or rely on facts?” All these months later, I am still wondering why people latch on to misinformation with such eagerness, but dismiss the bare bones of scientific research as some diabolical plot to control our minds. This was exemplified with hilarity in the above mentioned Netflix mock documentary by the soccer mom, smiling brightly and wriggling with smug satisfaction as she cradled her mug of coffee, nodding her head in blissful agreement with the conspiracy theories which someone sent her via a video link on her What’s app chat group. She felt knowledgeable, on the ball, INFORMED, and she repeated what she had heard, rattling it all off by heart, even though logic was decidedly missing from the equation.
As the news emerging from Italy became disquietingly too close for comfort my next column asked, “How prepared are we for an epidemic, really?” On 7 March, the first Covid-19 cases were reported in Malta and it turns out that we were prepared after all, and things remained relatively in check until that famous three day pool party and other events at the beginning of summer which have had a domino effect from which we have never recovered. As the weeks rolled by I think I must have examined the effects of this surreal situation from every possible angle. From flattening the curve, to the lockdown decision (which in Malta was relatively mild and short) to how it affected people differently, how other countries were handling it and how we would adjust to the ‘new normal’.
And yet, like the “average person” perfectly played by British actress Diane Morgan in the Netflix comedy, I know there were people out there who refused to admit the virus was real, treating it like something they watched on the news which had nothing to do with them. Some of them are still among us. “Was that this year?”, she asks blankly when shown the footage about the pandemic on an iPad.
It was also a year when the importance of having the right kind of leadership was felt more than ever before. The Netflix mockumentary, created by the same people who brought us Black Mirror, drove this point home well. They interspersed fictional characters who commented on the (scary) real footage and sound bites by Trump and Boris Johnson to illustrate how they mishandled everything with their clownish bluster and nonchalant attitude, only for both of them to be infected by the virus themselves (although some still insist both of these were staged events to garner public sympathy). That image of Trump tearing off his mask like some kind of masked crusader who has survived the Apocalypse was both funny and tragic, because there are still many Americans who refuse to wear masks, leading to increased infections as a result. “Maybe I’m immune, I don’t know,” Trump shrugged with his typical infuriating swagger in one of his speeches. As if echoing my thoughts one of the ‘experts’ in the mockumentary described how everyone was praying when Trump got infected, albeit for different outcomes.
For reasons only he can explain, our own PM Robert Abela decided that he would choose these two as his role models and emulated their behaviour by not wearing a mask which only served to undermine the health authorities’ consistent message. Months down the line, he still keeps making the same mistake of coming out with grandiose statements that all this will be over soon (much like Boris did in his last press conference) just because he said so. There seems to be some prime minister handbook going around which advises leaders to demonstrate constant wild-eyed optimism, even in the face of facts which tell a different story. While I understand Abela cannot preach doom and gloom in his New Year’s Eve message, and that giving people hope now that there is a vaccine is an admirable thing, I still prefer a certain amount of realism and prudence when a leader opens his mouth to speak.
Will it not be much worse in the long run to give people false hope and have all their expectations dashed if normality is not restored as quickly as he has forecast? And won’t all these predictions of his merely result in people throwing caution to the wind and not adhering to the mitigation measures as they have done before? We have had two examples of this already even before the year was out. The exodus of cars making their way to Gozo for the New Year festivities does not bode well and a local council thinking it was a good idea to organise a bingo event for elderly people who are high risk in a closed room without any ventilation just makes you want to find the nearest wall and bang your head.
2020 was also the year of immediately recognisable types so brilliantly acted in Death to 2020 such as the know-it-all snowflake millennial who creates “content” and the White House spokesperson (played by Lisa Kudrow) who keeps denying her previous statements, even as the reporter plays back her own quotes. This was the year when overnight, everyone with a keyboard became an expert on everything, and the real medical experts were purportedly in cahoots with Big Pharma and Bill Gates. It was the year when “Charmaine at 12.30pm” became a catchphrase, and we stopped laughing at Asian cultures where they have been wearing masks for years as a matter of course.
Thankfully, 2020 was not a complete disaster because, Trump was voted out, despite all those who were convinced he would be re-elected, and his refusal to concede defeat.
But here on home ground we are still grappling with our own questionable politicians and people who were in power as inquiries and court cases about the Muscat administration drag on. Will we finally get closure in 2021 about all that has happened? I hope so, because the country fervently needs it, if only to be able to move forward a few steps rather than to remain constantly stuck in a quagmire of doubts and unanswered questions.
Just like the vaccine has given us a flicker of hope for the future, we also need some kind of vaccine to provide a remedy for this country’s intrinsic ills. Here’s hoping….