If someone asked you to describe the last twelve months with only one word, what would it be?
Words and phrases like “pandemic”, “lockdown”, and “black lives matter” definitely stand out more than others. However, one word which might not be said as much could describe almost everything that has unfolded over the past twelve months. This past year in short, has been uncomfortable.
Everything about it is uncomfortable. It looks and feels uncomfortable; it’s uncomfortable to hear about it; and it’s uncomfortable to give any of it a second thought. The events of the last twelve months have also challenged almost every aspect of modern society from the foundations up.
From the omnipresence of the Covid-19 pandemic to the general political and social divides as well as economic uncertainties, all of which bear similarities to the 1930’s, this past year has seen its share of generation-defining moments, which would have previously spanned years, or perhaps decades.
Once other lingering issues such as racism, gender inequality, and climate change are factored in, calling these extraordinary times we find ourselves in “uncomfortable” is an understatement. To fully describe the opening of what could be this generation’s Pandora’s Box is likely not possible.
However, it is at least worth trying to describe some of it.
A year lost… and found?
Exactly one year ago today, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, and day-to-day life has never been the same.
From families and friends being cut off from physical contact due to lockdowns to Zoom calls becoming both a social necessity and a bane of most people’s existence, we have lived and are still living in a time which has truly felt like no other.
With the majority of people’s work, home, and social life contained within the four walls of their homes, living day-to-day has blurred to a point where looking out of the kitchen window feels like watching a scenic time-lapse.
Outside of quarantine, economies have contracted at rates not seen since the Great Depression. Almost every business, with the exception of retail and other essential businesses, were closed in line with local and national lockdowns, some on several occasions. Other businesses, mainly in the hospitality, entertainment, and arts sectors, never reopened, and will likely not reopen for the foreseeable future.
The hospitality, tourism, and entertainment industries, which are built around bringing people together, were hit so badly that the damage will likely last long after the pandemic passes.
As weeks turned to months, the pandemic began to be spoken of in terms of war by government leaders, with all other lives lost apparently being less important. In Ireland, over a million hospital appointments have been cancelled in the last year.
Cancer screenings and chemotherapy sessions were indefinitely pushed back. Major operations for those who were on waiting lists for an already unbearable length of time were postponed. Access to mental health services were cut to those who were already feeling the strain of life, which was exponentially compounded with the pandemic. The list of examples is too long to recite.
Even now, it would be foolish not to discount the pandemic, or the potential damage it can cause to the immunocompromised, even if Covid-19 has not become the apocalyptic plague feared by many a year ago.
Many people could easily consider 2020 in particular to be a lost year because of the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic. However, one benefit is that the situation has revealed issues, which might have otherwise escaped our attention.
While Covid forced the world to mask up, the pandemic revealed what was hidden behind the mask that society itself wears daily.
They still have a dream…
The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of American police officers, among numerous incidents, once more brought the movement for racial equality into focus in a way not seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s.
The tremors from such events, especially the manner surrounding Floyd’s death, felt stronger and further reaching than they have ever been, with protests calling for racial equality reaching almost every major city in the western world. In spite of Covid, the cause of racial justice was, and still is far too important to ignore.
Protesters laying in the middle of the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and Second Avenue in Memphis on June 4, 2020 during the protests over the death of George Floyd. Source: Patrick Lantrip / AP.
Despite the progress made since the Civil Rights Movement in terms of legislation around the world, true progress on any issue can only be determined by tangible progress in areas such as jobs and educational opportunities, as well as financial equity and social equality.
By that metric, systemic racism is an issue that Western societies have acknowledged is wrong, but continue to fail to fully make amends for or correct.
The decolonization of empires, and especially the manner in which former colonisers evacuated from their former colonies, have led to wide ranging economic, political, social, and in some cases, racial issues in former colonies.
As empires were carved with no regard for the different cultures, ethnicities, or linguistics of their indigenous peoples, especially during the Scramble for Africa, turmoil and violence in many former colonies has been commonplace since the end of the Second World War. Many modern-day conflicts – such as many of those in the Middle East, Africa, and India – are a direct result of decolonisation.
In Ireland, the Direct Provision system is also a by-product of former empires not fully owning up to their racist, imperialist past, since many refugees come to Europe from former African and Middle Eastern colonies to escape crises and conflicts that have their roots in colonial times.
Initially intended to provide short-term accommodation for asylum seekers from the Yugoslav Wars, the direct provision system has been widely criticised for not allowing refugees to integrate into society by denying them the right to work, with some remaining within the system for years. Last month, the government outlined a plan to replace the Direct Provision system by the end of 2024.
To say racism is not a perennial problem in modern society only showcases ignorance at best, and bigoted delusion at worst. Nevertheless, a comprehensive re-examination of how racism exists within society is long overdue.
Even five decades after the Civil Rights Movement, those who suffered, and still suffer racial injustice, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., still have a dream of equality. However, unless those who have suffered are not only seen to be equal, but feel it too, then there remains more to do.
A ghost of Ireland’s past
The Me Too movement has been highly topical in recent years, and was brought into the consciousness of Irish people once more towards the end of 2020.
This is when it was revealed that tens of thousands of sexually explicit images and videos were being shared on online fora, mostly of women without their consent. Here, Ireland was given another sobering reminder that sexism is still disturbingly routine.
While the knowledge that such fora exist is shocking and inexcusable in itself, it was the revelation that there is no legislative protection for victims which evoked the most fury, sparking protests for laws to be urgently passed, which eventually happened in December.
Given Ireland’s controversial past in regard to women’s rights, the fact that women’s privacy and dignity was heretofore unprotected by law in this manner is disappointing, if unsurprising.
While strides have been made, with the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment standing out in particular, Ireland remains a far cry from being a modern country in terms of gender equality.
From the historical abuses inflicted in mother and baby homes, and the Magdalene Laundries, to the events of the last few weeks, there is no shortage of examples which stress this point. However, it is day-to-day sexism, which remains the largest problem. Unfortunately, this problem is two-fold.
It comes from our sense of humour, and how the Irish often joke about someone and expect them to laugh it off out of politeness, disregarding how the target of said joke actually feels. Pair this with how society perpetuates the stereotypes which define what it means to be either a man or a woman, and you can see how sexism remains as much of a systemic issue as racism.
In reality, such stereotypes distract from the fact that society should be constantly challenging what it means to be a better person, while also calling out people’s wrongdoings – a common principle which is neither inherently masculine nor feminine.
Although Ireland is rapidly becoming one of the most progressive countries in the world, sexism remains one of the ghosts left from Ireland’s turbulent past, which no one can any longer feign ignorance about.
Not leading by example
Our political leaders have not showered themselves in glory over the past twelve months. After what was a generally well-received response to the pandemic by the outgoing government, following February’s unprecedented general election, the “grand coalition” backed by the Green Party has been mired in a near-constant state of controversy.
July saw Green Party leader Eamon Ryan being caught sleeping in the middle of a Dáil vote regarding lower-paid workers, which spawned several internet memes.
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August brought Golfgate, leading to the resignations of Minister of Agriculture Dara Calleary and EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, undermining confidence in then-new restrictions introduced by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Hogan’s resignation also damaged Ireland’s critical position in regard to negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal alongside the rest of the EU 27.
However, the biggest controversy arguably came with the voting down of a motion to pay student nurses and midwives in early December, leading to widespread condemnation and calls for those in such placements to be paid for their efforts.
This outrage was already present when controversial laws passed in July allowed for a third ‘super junior’ minister to be entitled to a €16,000 pay rise for sitting at Cabinet, and was exacerbated with the November motion.
The motion once more brought up the issue of why nurses and midwives are emigrating to work. A 2018 INMO report found that nearly 70% of nurses and midwives who qualified that year saying that they planned to work abroad once their training was finished.
Many took to social media to express their anger at the call, while others have spoken to the media, or have written about their frustrations of their work not being acknowledged.
However, it is not only politicians who have been seen to be leading by bad example, with the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ being caught up in controversy.
Golfgate saw RTÉ cut ties with long-time broadcaster Sean O’Rourke over his part in the scandal, while a November gathering which did not adhere to public health guidelines saw Bryan Dobson, David McCullagh, Miriam O’Callaghan, and Managing Director of News and Current Affairs Jon Williams apologise for attending the gathering.
These controversies should remind politicians of their legal and moral duty to do right by the people who have elevated them into such a privileged position. Journalists and those in the media must remember their obligation to be transparent with the public.
However, when two of society’s pillars – the political and media classes – fail to uphold the highest standards, especially during a pandemic, then major damage to their credibility is not only to be expected, but is inevitable.
Looking on the brighter side of life
In spite of what has been an extremely tough year, it cannot be stressed enough that 2020 still gave us reasons to look on the brighter side of life.
In April, a 99 year old British war veteran raised over £32 million for the NHS by lapping his garden 100 times ahead of his 100th birthday, while fundraisers became commonplace for causes close to people’s hearts.
Captain Tom Moore was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in May 2020 for his charitable services to the NHS.
Moments of moving solidarity were displayed via spontaneous concerts and singalongs from the apartment blocks of Italian cities during the spring lockdown.
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The pandemic also proved that love conquers all, with the internet showing the many inventive ways people were able to share moments with loved ones while socially distancing, among other moments.
Most importantly, it has demonstrated that those who work the jobs which many are not willing to do, are the very people who have kept society going throughout this pandemic.
To say that essential workers have gone above and beyond the call of duty would be an understatement. Hopefully, the immeasurable sacrifices they have made are at some point, duly rewarded.
However, the last twelve months have done so much more than to simply show us the world at its best and worst. It has also given many people the time to slow down for the first time in years – to do something else with their time which they likely would not have done otherwise. Learning a new skill, adopting a different diet, doing some volunteer work, to name a few examples.
The pandemic, and the lockdowns in particular, allowed for people to have long periods of deep reflection, with many re-evaluating how they want to live their day-to-day lives once the pandemic is over.
Far too much has happened to return to how things were
While the Covid-19 pandemic will likely go down as being the defining event of both 2020 and 2021, it is not too much of a stretch to ask whether all the other issues would have had such an amplified spotlight on them had the pandemic never happened. Of course, it asks a question for which an answer will never be known. In any case, it should not even matter.
Systemic racism is just as important an issue to deal with as sexism. Ableist discrimination is as morally reprehensible as persecution based on religion, nationality, or sexuality. Climate change is just as pressing a matter as is dealing with crises such as poverty, homelessness, and mental health. The list goes on.
Both as individuals, and as a society, this turbulent period should be a reminder that no one person’s or group’s pain is more valid than any other, and each issue must be seen as important to address as any other for their own reasons.
What can be said for certain is that whatever we previously defined as “normal life” did not work, and will likely never work for a majority of people. Far too much has happened to even contemplate going back to how life was before the start of the year.
This pandemic opened a Pandora’s box which society never wanted opened. However, it is one which needed opening. Now all of the complicated and difficult issues which were hidden inside to be forgotten about must be dealt with.
When RTÉ’s Reeling in the Years gets around to the episode (or episodes) recapping this uncertain period, hopefully it will be remembered as being the point where everything began to change for the better.