By Don Beyer, Jr.
In a world already experiencing tumultuous flux, most of us just lived through the most significant change year of our lives. Scores of books will be written about 2020; history, science, politics, technology, and more.
Let me offer the three coronavirus phenomena that seem most important to me.
First, the pandemic destroyed our illusion that most Americans live prosperous, secure lives. The underlying inequities in income, wealth, and job opportunities became transparent. The Census Bureau survey in early December found 17 percent of households with children did not have enough to eat that week. If you are Black or Hispanic in America, you are nearly three times as likely to die of Covid-19, according to the CDC. An estimated 11 million Americans are overdue on their rent, many of whom face eviction. The virus eliminated more than ten million jobs, many of them permanently. Despite the initial bold Congressional CARES Act in April (and without the even more necessary May 15 relief bill which the Senate never acted upon), many Americans still live one paycheck or unemployment compensation check away from homelessness and hunger. Unsurprisingly, official measures of depression and anxiety are at historical highs. Opioid deaths accelerated throughout the year.
2020 also brought home, powerfully, that while few of us wants to be characterized as racists, systemic racism is grounded in our history, culture, and economy. We can only change this and move forward if we acknowledge this with integrity.
Second, our citizens are more divided than ever before. I do not want to believe that the 74 million people who voted for our current president approve of his character. So much is written about the causes of our polarization: rural vs. urban, educated vs. less educated; working class vs. upper middle class; the thriving vs. the left-behind. I choose to believe that across our whole culture, there are profound values upon which we agree: love of family, integrity, responsibility, work ethic, compassion, charity, and more. Yes, these will be expressed in different political ideas, and we should thrive with that dialogue. Upsetting is the anger, the exaggeration, and the fearfulness that beset too many of us.
I am dismayed by the silent complicity of my Republican House friends with the outrages of the departing president. But I do respect many of them. The work of the years ahead must be learning to listen to each other; not to bash each other with debate points we cannot hear, but to let our lives be our argument, searching for ways forward together. As New Jersey philosopher Bruce Springsteen put it, “The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”
Third, we have seen extraordinary examples of goodness in each other through the course of 20 million coronavirus infections and more than 330,000 deaths (with too many more deaths ahead in the pandemic). Our frontline workers are superhumanly heroic. Our scientists work 100+ hour weeks on vaccines and treatments. Food bank volunteers abound. Most of us are conscientious about physical distancing and wearing masks. We have adjusted our lives overnight, and found new ways to work, to communicate, and to take care of each other. This pandemic has brought tragedy to myriad families, and destroyed our economy for the time being. But it has also reminded us that we do belong to strong, loving communities, still capable of reason, science, progress, and deep humanity.
So, “where do we go from here?”
Let’s begin by addressing the root causes of poverty: a minimum wage income is insufficient to rent a two-bedroom apartment in any county in the US. Health care remains unaffordable for tens of millions of our citizens. The next generation cannot afford the higher education most new jobs require; and if they borrow the tuition, the debt burden forces the postponement of marriage, children, and a home of their own.
Let’s continue by renewing our commitment to dialogue. We need to keep talking, having conversations, public and private, about how we go forward together. The American Public Square movement, nascent in Kansas City, is a good example. We don’t have to agree on everything, or anything, but we can understand each other better, and that changes us.
And let’s celebrate the goodness we see in each other. It is everywhere, if we open our eyes. And can be everywhere, if we remember to build respect and kindness into every interaction we have. Let’s make 2021 not just a year of vaccinations and economic recovery, but also a time of civic and personal renewal. Happy New Year!
U.S. Congressman Don Beyer, Jr. represents Virginia’s 8th Congressional District