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23 December 2020

After the unremitting awfulness of 2020, even hope feels dangerous

The early months of the pandemic seem almost quaint compared to the horrors that were to come.  

By Alona Ferber

The absurdity of the past year edged past the acceptable limits of reality last weekend. From Saturday afternoon through to Sunday night, the steady drops of doom kept falling. First there was the cancellation of Christmas, after leaders who were more interested in playing politics than managing a pandemic overpromised on relaxations. As the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, explained, this was, as in the best dystopian novels, because of an “out-of-control” mutant strain of the virus that has upended our lives since March.  

Only four days before the rules were due to be relaxed, millions of people learned they would not be permitted to celebrate together, despite the government’s months-long vow to “save Christmas”. This included those who had bought food they might not have been able to afford, those now left at home without food in the fridge, those who had already spent too much money on train tickets, and the businesses given little notice before being forced to yet again close their doors. 

Then came the closure of the French border to UK freight for 48 hours, owing to the new coronavirus strain, and a barrage of other travel bans. This was accompanied by the threat of a no-deal Brexit, the wall on the other side of the wind screen as a car is about to crash. 

And the gloom continued on Monday morning. “It’s not looking optimistic right now,” the Imperial College London professor Neil Ferguson told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. Those living in tier four areas could be under extreme restrictions for months.

This annus horribilis refused to gracefully make way for the new year. Instead, 2020 decided to work extra hard to fit in a nightmare scenario just before the clock strikes midnight on 31 December.   

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In something of an understatement, Hancock told The Andrew Marr Show on 20 December that the discovery of a new strain of Covid-19 that could increase the R number by between 0.4 and 0.9 “has been an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”.  

[See also: Stephen Bush on the muddled introduction of tier four]

Yes, it’s been quite awful, frankly. There were some bright spots, such as that election last month when a certain person lost – if you are that way inclined. The shine wore off pretty quickly, though, helped in part by said person’s continuous refusal to accept the result. A poll conducted by the Guardian in Australia asked readers to sum up this year in a single word. The top three results were “shit”, “fucked and “exhausting”. The Washington Post conducted a similar exercise, unfortunately editing out the “words we couldn’t print in a family newspaper”. But its top three conveys a similar sense of Armageddon: “exhausting” too, and then “lost” and “chaotic”.   

In recent weeks, on the endless Teams and Zoom calls during which colleagues inevitably reflect on the year, the conclusion is always the same: it has been a terrible one. There is no sugar-coating it, no silver lining. Those early months, when we could not leave the house except to exercise or to buy food (and my daughter was at home with me 24/7, watching far too many Disney films while I tried to work), seem almost quaint in hindsight. Aside from the sickness, death and recession, as one friend put it to me recently, everything is so mundane and banal. You just want something different to happen. Even my daughter, only three, regularly expresses her desire for coronavirus to just go away.  

It’s not simply the big-picture awfulness of the past nine months either. By some odd cosmic coincidence, this year has been personally bad for so many people I know, beyond the pandemic, whether it was the death of a loved one or a cancer diagnosis or the chronic pain of a slipped disc. At this time of year we usually stop and breathe, enjoy a long line of Christmas parties, perhaps even some debauchery, before settling into the quiet of time with loved ones, whether one celebrates Christmas or not. The news cycle and the general pace of life slows. We stop and think before we start up again for the new year.   

But this year, we won’t get to do that. The facts of this year, the fullness of it, are now creeping into that precious in-between time, just as work has intruded into every crevice of personal life for those of us who have been in “virtual offices” since March. This has been a year of no boundaries, no borders between the self and the outside world, between children and parents, between Covid-19 case rates and Saturday mornings. There is no opportunity to stop and to reset; there is only this continuous limbo in the fog of incompetent and cowardly leadership.   

[See also: Tracey Thorn on why she doesn’t want a perfect Christmas]

The hope and optimism of those early days, the nice-yet-patronising clapping for the NHS and the 750,000 rushing to volunteer, seem quaint, too. Mostly we occupy atomised lives, ordering too much stuff we don’t need online as if it were our patriotic duty. Some of us are lucky enough to have gardens, or jobs, or families to spend time with. Others are living alone, furloughed or made redundant, some in flats with nowhere to step out and breathe.   

But maybe that’s just my own predilection for pessimism. When the same Guardian poll asked readers to summarise how they felt about 2021 in a single word, the most popular responses were “better” and “hopeful”. I, for one, do not feel that way, not after this year, and certainly not after last weekend, but I will give 2021 the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that it will convince me otherwise.