Living Through a Pandemic, Amidst an Economic Depression, at a Time of Record-Smashing Wildfires

by TI Pendraig

Since April of 2020, when the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 truly erupted across the United States, there has been a remarkable uptick in media ads offering scripted, empty platitudes from the corporate sector. In these unprecedented times, they intone with sombre gravity, as if the masses can’t tell how unusually shite their world is at present. Communities thrive together, they promise eagerly, as if they’ve had any meaningful, positive impact on the lives of their captive consumers outside the promotional sparkle of token charity.

In truth, their words are not factually incorrect. These are, indeed, unprecedented times; these are the days that will make headlines in history books. And local communities, working together for the common good, can thrive even despite heartbreaking challenges. That being said, the words are a bit much to swallow coming from entities which count their profits in the millions, beneficiaries spared the plebeian anxieties of choosing which bill to skip this month to avoid over-drafting again, of scrounging together enough spare coinage one more time to afford a quarter tank or rice and beans for three, for months. And this stark divide between the haves and the have-nots – let’s be honest, between the obsessively rich and the nameless poors – has been made nauseatingly plain owing to the absolute clusterfuck that is the year 2020.

In California this divide has been a long-standing joke reaching back decades, an uneasy balance of social morality against economic reality. The Golden State is frequently, and deservedly, held to its own standard as compared with the other 49 states. Not merely a result of any particular political leaning, California’s place as a coastal economic powerhouse means it is at once leagues ahead of its time – in environmental policies, in educational opportunities, in health and wellness culture – and also leagues behind.

At $13 per hour for minimum wage, it offers nearly twice the national standard. And yet, a minimum wage worker in the state would have to work no fewer than 90 hours in a week just to afford a one-bedroom rental – and that’s the state average. In San Francisco, for example, it’s far worse: 161 hours per week for that same space.

There are 168 hours in a week.

Housing is one issue, but one of an untold many. Housing availability, healthcare access (and especially, mental healthcare), childcare affordability, pervasive educational disparity, staggering student debt – for those living under the breadline in the Bay Area and beyond, California has long been a difficult endeavour.

And then came 2020, in all of its shitty glory.

Says Norcal resident John P succinctly, “I hope it ends soon.” The sentiment is echoed by many, locked away from each other as people have been for months on end or, in some cases, locked in with each other. The stressors of an unknown contagion, an economic crash, and ravaging wildfires across the state have piled atop smouldering fears about the climate crisis, the election aftermath, and spiking global inequity. That stark divide has been painfully delineated by the at times cavalier treatment in the news of blatant, unrepentant disregard for safety as demonstrated in certain circles, of blind tone deafness and privilege.

Memes abound online among younger generations describing the overlapping chaos, coached in the characteristically black Millennial humour.

Much has been written in recent years of the plight of Millennials, haunted first by the economic crash of 2008, the following rise in chronic underemployment, the jarring cultural shifts of awareness after 9/11 and Columbine, systemic wage stagnation, depreciation of higher education credentials – Millennials are called the Burnout Generation, with good reason.

Now into, reaching, or – for some – beyond their 30s, Millennials add this financial meltdown to the mental tally of every other crippling disaster they’ve popularly been mocked for suffering through; it’s old hat at this point. “What’s one more soul-crushing fuck-up anyway?” says 31-year old Arte F.

But that long-endured reality is now being shared across an entire underclass in America, and that underclass is ballooning. The present economic recession – and it is, despite what some select few may want to argue, in every sense headed into a depression – affects neighbourhoods to differing degrees based broadly on one overarching factor: the ability for workers to perform their jobs remotely. “Essential workers,” as in those whose duties quite literally allow our complex modern society to function as expected, have been hailed these last few months as heroes, lauded at length in print and cable news – all without any lasting, impactful changes made law to improve their expressly essential existence. Service and retail workers, migrant farmers, transportation workers, healthcare workers, teachers, and others have been vocal about the reality of their work. Pleas for fairer pay, better safety equipment, more access to mental health services have gone viral online. The response from the powers that be has largely been, thoughts and prayers.

In the last year, deaths of despair ( a clinical term for suicide) in the United States across all ages have spiked alarmingly. GoFundMe requests for medical expenses comprise every one in three campaigns as of 2019; with the mass breakdown of the veneer of normalcy, that number is likely to continue increasing. The mass protests that have flooded city streets across the country in support of black and minority lives, in support of police accountability, in support of socioeconomic equality had been attended by approximately half a million people by the 6th of June 2020, and arguably upwards of 23 million in the US alone, according to polls conducted nearer the end of June. Nurses and teachers have gone on strike en masse to demand better working conditions, as those who are among the most likely to fall ill. The bare bones national moratorium on evictions, set to expire in June, was extended through end of year, with no consideration under the Trump administration for an expansion, or for easing compounded back rent, so dooming some thousands of families to homelessness and the real risk of starvation – during a pandemic, in the dead of winter. Happy new year indeed.

Food banks have reported staggeringly long queues lasting hours since the beginning of the pandemic, and a lack of sufficient food supplies that is not new, but markedly worse. Urban wildlife is at an all-time low, indicative of broader systemic breakdowns; the oceans are acidifying, even as Arctic melt floods them, altering the currents; and the poor are made to shoulder the blame – and the cost – for the environmental crisis with a chorus of, Recycle more.

America’s 99% is in a bad way. It has been bad since long before 2020, to be sure. The particular flavour of this year’s fuck you to the working poor is something that might charitably be called blind visibility.

Reddit, the self-styled “front page of the internet,” hosts forum channels entirely dedicated to the poor man’s finances, to chronicling the spiralling symptoms of global climate collapse (and offering emotional support), to cataloguing every instance of police brutality in 2020, to tracking and fact-checking every one of the many, many instances of corruption and moral abrogation among officials at all levels in Trump’s America. YouTube, too, is filled with videos taken on the streets in 2020 as police kettle lawful protestors in order to gas and arrest them, as police sabotage medical tents and target medics and members of press; it is filled with tearful entreaties from nurses, doctors, and families begging the public at large to respect and follow safety protocols – to wear a damned mask, please for the love of all you hold dear, so that they don’t have to watch more patients die. A search of photos online will find hospital bills from Americans tallying in the thousands, after intensive care for COVID-19. Some few have pre-emptively chosen to die or divorce rather than to curse their families with such an inescapable debt.

The proof of suffering is there, for those who care to look.

In January of this year, the world watched on in horror as what seemed the entirety of Australia burned. In a matter of weeks, 17 to 18 million hectares were left charred and barren of life; the sky was for days a sickly orange haze too toxic to breathe, tangible in the air in New Zealand and continuing across the globe even to South America.

And from this heart-rending tragedy came declarations of love and support the world over. Firefighters flew in from the United States, from Canada, from France, from Singapore – in all, 70 countries lent aid. The ultimate loss of life and habitat was a devastating beginning to the new year – and as we know now, only a sickening precursor to the months to come.

One of the towns near where I live, Lobethal, was very badly affected by the fires, and most of their income comes from the Christmas market and displays and other tourism during the summer. So they lost much of their annual income in the fires and in order to recoup their losses they had planned a parade and festival in March, which they had to cancel because of the pandemic.

Rachel H, of South Australia

Only weeks after the headlines focused on Australia, the US west coast’s own infernos cast a dystopian haze across the continent and beyond. Despite the haze reaching even Toronto and London, the heavy scent of smoke was localised to the coastal states in which hundreds of fires raged. Schools were closed and warnings to stay indoors issued as households woke to a sky straight out of Bladerunner.

And still, this was only a fraction of The Year That Fucking Sucked.

SARS-CoV-2 has dominated the news in 2020 with good reason. The new variant discovered only recently looks to continue that sense of ennui as the world heads toward a new, preferably less shitty year. But while the virus – and it is at this point so ubiquitous that everyone knows unquestioningly which one you mean when you say the virus – has been the largest monster among us for what feels like an age, the thing that has made 2020 so uniquely shite is the sheer variety of dire events.

We’ve lost great minds to the terrible 2020, from Grant Imahara, Irrfan Khan, and Chadwick Boseman to Justice Ruther Bader Ginsberg, Representative John Lewis, and Senator Elijah Cummings. Dr. Li Wenliang was vilified and then vindicated even as he died of the very virus he was warning about. Beirut exploded violently in a cruel blast of governmental negligence. Two frightful hurricanes tore through the southeastern United States in short succession. Turkey and Greece were hit by 6.7 magnitude earthquake, Puerto Rico by a 6.4, and Mexico by a 7.4. Massive swarms of locusts descended on East Africa. Koalas will likely go extinct in New South Wales owing to the massive loss of habitat following the fires. Ukraine International Airlines 737 was shot down in error, and a Pakistan International Airlines Airbus crashed. Harvey Weinstein was outed and charged for heinous crimes spanning decades, and Ghislaine Maxwell, co-conspirator to Jeffrey Epstein, was finally arrested, months after Epstein mysteriously died in custody. President Trump, impeached in 2019, was acquitted in 2020. Murder hornets arrived in the lower United States.

Even in this list I will have missed many things worth mentioning. Every year has bad in it, some would say. But the core of the issue is not so much the bad things, so much as the magnitude of each of them. On an ascending scale of 1 to 5 for absolute suckage, every bad thing in 2020 has seemed to be no less than a 7. And events just keep happening: there is little to no reprieve, no space to process, to grieve, to brace for the next.

This constant barrage of stupidly bad tidings, and especially among months of taxing social isolation, has lead to a surge in what psychology calls panic fatigue. People are, quite bluntly, all out of fucks to give. Many, many people.

The bleary, bitter hope among the masses has been that 2021 will bring an end to the madness, and will instead be a harbinger of goodness, as the light follows the dark. But this sort of optimism – jaded naiveté – fails to recognise that life is by its nature utterly neutral. But even in shitty times, good things still happen, buried as they are by the overwhelming bad.

The Good News Network charts this sort of constructive journalism, choosing to feed positivity into the world rather than profit off of predictions of gloom. Positive News, a journalistic cooperative, also offers a more rounded world-view, eschewing a singular focus on only society’s ills. Common Dreams chooses to explore not only these ills, but also the paths we might take to betterment.

2020 has given us a global pandemic, and terrifying wildfires, and anxiety attacks, and exposed an overdue economic decay – but it has also gifted us with an opportunity to see what has been hidden in front of our eyes. The hope is that the incoming year will bring more chances for good than bad, that change will be made for the better and not the worse, that people will choose to do right rather than to follow blindly along. We farewell 2020 with great fervour and relief, and a grand, earnest fuck you to the fates.

2022 EDIT:
Some further reading for you on the clusterfuck that was 2020. A bit on policing, on the moratorium, on the food banks, on air quality, on Dr Li Wenliang, and on mindfulness. And lastly, a resource on media bias.