2020 Didn’t Kill Us (just barely) … What Did We Learn?

An op-ed by Sarbjeet Kaur

Last night, I fell asleep at an Indian wedding. My cousin’s marriage; vibrant red ribbons stretched over tall ceilings, turbans and bright traditional clothing crowding the food venues hoping to make it in time for dessert, all in 240p video resolution quality and grainy distorted audio. Not what I had pictured in mind, but at 4 a.m. as I sat in bed fighting with my eyes to stay open, my brain wasn’t processing much else than how annoying this all was. Since I was the only family member who’d become nocturnal over quarantine, it was my duty to attend the wedding. I’m not sure if attend is the right word, seeing as I was sunk deep into two blankets and clinging to the edges of consciousness as the groom kissed the bride. (Kissing doesn’t happen at Indian weddings but that’s beside the point)

Guilt twisted my stomach as my mom showed us the photos on her phone the next day, and I felt I’d failed at sharing the joys of the wedding. My phone died somewhere around 6 a.m., but I was too far into dreamland to notice. I couldn’t recall much of what happened through the blurry and shaky images but my family was satisfied watching a video my cousin sent of the joyous occasion. I skipped out on the replay and decided to head back to bed, only remembering my online classes at half past noon when I woke again. I ended up spending five hours binging Dexter. The next day mirrored the one before it, until my weeks blurred into one hazy smudge I had trouble remembering. 

All of a sudden–every tragedy I saw on the news or heard from a friend, every bit of anger taunting my lack of control and targeting those who could facilitate change, every bit of boredom and emptiness from quarantine–it all surfaced to my mind, like the weights of distraction finally letting go. I let myself cry in silence.

COVID-19 impacted enough lives for it to be labeled a pandemic, and not only has it hit 188 countries, its universal effects targeted all segments of the population: the rich and poor, young and old, white and black, and everyone in between. However, it illuminated the gaps in privilege among our population. Amazon doubled its profits and President Trump’s negligence towards the situation stirred up distress among communities. As the death toll piled up, I sat in my warm bed trying to ignore the constant anxiety I felt when I watched Dexter kill someone on TV without a mask and definitely not while standing six feet apart. 

In modern times, 2020 has been the wort year, no doubt. But compared to 1918, when the Spanish flu killed anywhere between fifty to one hundred million people; or 1349, when half of Europe was wiped out; or 536–the worst year ever in history–when a fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and Asia into darkness, temperatures plummeted in the summertime, crops failed, and the Plague of Justinian wiped out about half of the Eastern Roman Empire; 2020 seems pretty manageable in the grand scheme of dark history. But try saying that to someone who’s lost family to COVID and is barely managing to pay bills; I’m not sure if they’d cry or whack you in the head. 

In the midst of COVID and social distancing, all of a sudden social distancing was left at the front door as hundreds swarmed in groups, protesting against the racial injustices toward black men and woman who lost their lives to police brutality: Rayshard Brooks, who fell asleep in his car at a drive-through and was shot twice in the back; Daniel Prude, experiencing a mental health episode and running naked in the street–died of “complications of asphyxia” from the spit hood placed on his head; George Floyd, an officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he choked out his last breath; Breonna Taylor, unjustly shot eight times; Alatiana Jefferson, shot to death; Aura Rosser, shot to death; Stephon Clark, shot more than 20 times for holding a cell phone in his grandmother’s yard, which the officers believed was a gun; Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray. Suddenly these names blur into one horrifying list, and each crime against them blends into the next unjustified death. While a funeral took place, I posted a black photo on my Instagram feed to support Blackout Tuesday–which ended up being a ploy to replace awareness and support for the Black Lives Matter movement with black snapshots. 

I participated in a Zoom wedding. I stayed in bed for days on end without even realizing it. I cried at the news and tried to fight the overwhelming panic with cynicism and thinking maybe binging that TV show will definitely help me out here.

Every morning I debated whether I should turn on the news. I contemplated between it’s my responsibility and do I really want to know? While I hid under the covers from all the terrible events happening around me, some family in California celebrated their baby shower–a party that led to almost 23,000 acres burning down all across California. Congratulations, it’s a boy! 

I recently started an experiment to clear all distractions out of my room–my phone, my books, etc. I set an alarm for 10 minutes right outside the door to sit down in my bedroom. To do nothing but sit there. The timer hit eight minutes when I began to cry. 

I was struck with a combination of overwhelming emotion and consuming emptiness. All of a sudden–every tragedy I saw on the news or heard from a friend, every bit of anger taunting my lack of control and targeting those who could facilitate change, every bit of boredom and emptiness from quarantine–it all surfaced to my mind, like the weights of distraction finally letting go. I let myself cry in silence. 

Then the alarm rang and I hurried to turn it off. My mother glanced down at what she probably thought was too confusing to deal with as I kneeled outside my door, wiping my tears, surrounded by all the junk in my room and a blaring alarm waking up my grandmother who slept in the other room. With a tearful and sheepish apology, I crawled back into my room and decided to continue the experiment a week later. 

I participated in a Zoom wedding. I stayed in bed for days on end without even realizing it. I cried at the news and tried to fight the overwhelming panic with cynicism and thinking maybe binging that TV show will definitely help me out here. I’ve experienced pains, some facilitated just by the normal course of life and some the storm of 2020. Some part of me still believes 2021 will promise utopia, and I’m not sure if that part of me is unbelievably naive or hurt, but at least I’m self aware. 

I struggle to find positivity and some days I’m contemptuous with that fact. It feels wrong to look on the bright side when the darkness is too heavy to overshadow. There are two common statements given about history: It ensures people don’t repeat mistakes and that it is written by the victors. In the case of 2020, the majority of unrest stems from repeating mistakes; racial injustice, unprotected measures against viruses–yes, wearing a mask does prevent the spread of disease–accidents with starting fires. It seems we’ve been heading back in time. If history is written by the victors, future generations will view 2020 through Amazon’s perspective–textbooks stamped with reminders of how quick Prime delivery is (if you can manage to swallow knowing about the unjust treatment of its workers). 

The best thing that came out of this dark time and couldn’t have happened without the bad, was the spark of reform and change. It marks a turning point in our lives

The year 536 already claimed the worst year in history and 2020 didn’t put up much of a fight to replace it. A part of me is glad; the worst already happened and everyone from has long been laid to rest and so will never have to relive the pain. A part of me needs to stop blaming all of my problems on 2020. The best thing that came out of this dark time and couldn’t have happened without the bad, was the spark of reform and change. It marks a turning point in our lives: It’s time we all sit in an empty room and float in the troubles of the world, so when we turn off our alarms we can fight for black lives, or help save the planet, or even call people out when their masks only cover their mouth and their nose peeks out, ready to inhale and spread germs that could lead to more dead.

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