2021 might just be incredible

How to make next year the party we deserve

A maze.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

It would be impossible to heap too much abuse on the annus horribilis that was 2020, a year in which a grave public health crisis upended the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. It was a year from the pits of hell. The COVID-19 pandemic killed millions, debilitated countless others, triggered the worst economic depression in nearly 100 years, brought on a wave of homelessness, hunger, and despair, and forced even the lucky ones to navigate a seemingly bottomless morass of depression, isolation, psychological trauma, and fear. Whatever your most dire predictions for this year were when the calendar flipped almost twelve months ago, 2020 didn't just exceed them but buried them in a mountain of misery.

It's not like the immediate journey into 2021 is going to be a picnic either. But while the early months of this coming year are likely to be much like those that preceded them — with escalating cases and deaths from the virus, ongoing and painful social distancing measures, and the continued disruption of normal life — we may also be on the verge of a great release that could make the second half of 2021 something to genuinely look forward to.

The best news is the vaccine rollout which is already underway. Scientists around the world worked tirelessly to produce vaccines for this terrible disease, and not only did they succeed in that Herculean task, they did so on a timetable that many experts believed impossible and with extraordinary levels of efficacy that almost no one expected and which vastly exceed the protection offered by the seasonal flu vaccine. This is perhaps the only area of pandemic management that the Trump administration should be credited with at least not actively screwing up.

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Front-line health care workers are already getting their shots, months or years before some experts believed feasible, and they may be injecting the leading edge of a new scientific miracle just as consequential as the invention of the Polio vaccine into their bloodstreams. The innovative mRNA vaccines deployed by Pfizer and Moderna aren't just wildly effective against COVID-19 — they offer promise of a completely new tool in the fight against countless other viral scourges like Zika, the Norovirus stomach flu, the season flu, and possibly even some kinds of cancer. As 2021 rolls on, expect to hear new hope about humanity's ongoing battle against some of these ailments, and to marvel yet again at the inspirational magnitude of human ingenuity.

If you're a healthy, working age adult, you may not get your vaccine until May or even sometime this summer. As hard as that might be to stomach, the reality is that things are going to get better, and quickly, much earlier, in tangible ways that will make your life more bearable. Those who survive what promises to be a nightmarish winter will see rates of infection, hospitalizations, and deaths begin to plummet in February and March, as hotspot sites like nursing homes and prisons see the vaccines work their magic. When K-12 teachers are inoculated, many parents will finally be relieved of the burden of trying to work full-time jobs while also serving as the harried principles of makeshift, one-room schoolhouses. When the elderly get their shots, they will be able to travel and see their kids and grandkids, and to socialize openly with one another, lifting so many out of loneliness and gloom.

That's when the real fun starts. Now that the Trump administration has ordered another 100 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer, it may be possible to achieve something like herd immunity by summer, with everyone who wants a vaccine able to get it. There are even tantalizing signs that we may not need two shots of the two approved vaccines after all, greatly diminishing the amount of time it could take to get it to all of us. While that will still leave too many COVID truthers out there at risk of getting and spreading the virus, the rest of us are going to start making up for lost time. Remember all of the times you've played the "When this is over" game with your friends and family? We're almost there.

We're going to party down at the weddings that were canceled when the pandemic descended upon us, as well as the graduation parties and family reunions and music festivals and the slew of holiday celebrations that sensible people put off. The bleachers of sports stadiums will once again be full of fans downing hot dogs and beers and shouting at the top of their lungs without worrying about spraying pestilential saliva all over their friends.

And yes, the funerals too. So many of us have lost a loved one this year, and 2021 offers us the promise of real, in-person memorials to properly pay tribute to the lives snuffed out, both from COVID-19 and the normal churn of the human life cycle. But we will also toast to those who made it — the retired parents and grandparents, the immunocompromised friends, those who were infected but survived, as well as those close to us whose mental health has deteriorated during these awful months for whom the resumption of normalcy will serve as a critical lifeline.

Sometimes when I can't bear the thought of one more day of this miserable, attenuated existence, I picture myself in July at Chicago's Wrigley Field on a glorious, sun-soaked day, a Goose Island in hand and my toddler nestled into my other side, as a sold-out crowd of newly liberated revelers gives a five-minute standing ovation to a gaggle of doctors, nurses, grocery workers, and Amazon drivers. It gets me through some tough nights. And it's coming. If the Biden administration is smart, it will designate some day in late summer or early fall for a national jamboree, with parades and victory speeches and flyovers, an opportunity for all of us to release more than a year of pent-up frustration with dancing and hugging in the streets, and to replace our desolation with communal joy.

Of course, just how great 2021 ends up being still depends on choices we have yet to make. Possibly the most important is the outcome of the two Georgia runoffs which will determine party control of the Senate and consequently whether there will be any additional stimulus and recovery funds available to rebuild the economy. Those who haven't left their houses much recently may not be aware of the scale of economic misery in the United States. But it's bad and getting worse.

Take a stroll down the nearest business corridor and feast your eyes on all of the closed bars, restaurants, and stores. Don't avert your eyes from the lines at food banks and shelters. Fifty-four million Americans don't have enough to eat. In my city of Chicago alone, there are 80,000 people struggling with homelessness or housing instability. These problems aren't going to magically go away when everyone is vaccinated, because so many people have burned through their savings, and bankrupt entrepreneurs have no capital with which to start over.

With 110,000 restaurants and counting permanently shuttered and other small business sectors getting crushed too, including bookstores, theaters, gyms, hair salons, and other venues that depend on in-person business, the difference between a slow, flat recovery and a roaring economic boom will depend on the willingness of Congress to offer additional bailout packages and funding for these businesses to re-open. The relief bill that President Trump is railing incoherently against will be too little, too late for those who have already lost everything, and its effects will dissipate after the first quarter.

It took seven months just to squeeze this inadequate package out of Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans, and it is probably only the possibility of Democrats taking control that spurred them to finally do something. If either incumbent Republican, Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue, hangs on to their seat (or both), it is highly unlikely that any meaningful stimulus will be forthcoming in 2021. Many leading Republicans have already retreated to their comfortable austerity redoubts and want no part of doing anything that might make it seem like President-elect Joe Biden is overseeing a robust recovery. It isn't fair that our economic trajectory is dependent on two functionally random January Senate races, but it is what it is.

Much depends too on the Biden administration's policies. The early months are going to require coordinated federal action to slow the spread of the virus before the vaccine is widely available. And his team will need to quickly demonstrate the ability to fairly and transparently distribute the vaccine to states, to prevent corruption and elitism from tainting the public's perception of these efforts, and to convince skeptical Americans to take it. After all, even at 95 percent effectiveness, these vaccines are not bulletproof, and if enough people hold out, we could still see pockets of infections and deaths. The new administration will not have any time to spare — the tattered trust between state and federal governments will need to be rebuilt immediately, with none of the corrosive red state/blue state poison that destroyed the Trump administration's shambolic efforts to steer the pandemic response.

A lot rides, therefore, on the competence of our elites and the voters of a single state. But the shape of what is to come belongs in part to all of us too. If you had told me back in March, when I was coming to terms with not having childcare indefinitely while still working full time from home, that I wouldn't really get my pre-existing life back until June 2021, I'm not sure I would have made it. But the experience of extended collective trauma offers the possibility of collective exultation in its wake. We are newly awakened to the hardships of the workers who keep society afloat, to the true value of health-care and child-care professionals, and to the way that misfortune, sickness, and distress can warp our ability to function.

If there is one more possible silver lining for 2021 and beyond, it is the possibility of building a better, more decent and kinder society in the wake of this nightmare.

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