On being … too much in 2020

By Ingrid Sapona

Since 2011, my December 30th column has been a look back at the year based on the alphabet – you know, A is for…, B is for…, and so on. From about February on I keep a list of news stories and topics I find interesting or unusual. I enjoy the challenge of the alpha look-back because it engages me all year. By the time Christmas rolls around, I usually have only a few letters left to write about.

This year was no different and by December I had all but five letters covered. But the past couple weeks I decided to ditch my alpha review because a look back at 2020 ought to be different. Indeed, I think most would agree that a more fitting year-end review must involve reflecting on – both in sadness and in shock – some of the year’s tragic numbers.

Of course, the most devastating number is the number of people who have died from Covid-19 this year. As of 10 a.m. December 29, 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, there have been 1,778,266 deaths world-wide. Of that total, 335,208 deaths were in the U.S. and 15,202 have been in Canada.

I realize numbers – especially large ones – are an abstraction that can be difficult to understand or relate to. Given that, as I noted in my May 30, 2020 On being… column, I often search for comparisons as a way of providing perspective. CBS Sunday Morning offered a truly mind-blowing perspective on the U.S. death toll this week: they noted that if they did a ONE SECOND tribute for each of the Americans who have died of Covid-19 so far – it would take nearly 4 days. (To be more specific, at 86,400 seconds/day it would take – non-stop – 3.88 days for a one second tribute, which would realistically amount to just flashing a photo or quickly saying the name of each American who has died from Covid-19.)

I can’t understand why the people of a nation as rich and powerful as the United States are not enraged by the death toll. (Or at least they are not enraged enough to demand that their leaders lead.)  What does it say about a society that allows 1 in 1,000 of its citizens to die from a disease rather than come together and do all they can to protect themselves and each other?

But it wasn’t just five and six-digit numbers that I wish more Americans cared about in 2020. Another anguishing statistic relates to the number of federal executions carried out this year. Since July, the U.S. government has executed 10 federal death-row prisoners. While capital punishment proponents might point out that with 17 executed nationwide in 2020 (10 federal prisoners and 7 state prisoners), overall, 2020 saw the lowest number of executions in the U.S. since 1991.While that’s true, the fact is that until this year, there had not been a federal execution since 2003. I find it so troubling that no one seems to be asking why the sudden reinstitution of federal executions? What’s changed?

The year also saw a record-setting 30 Atlantic hurricanes. (That was the most storms since “reliable records” began being kept over 100 years ago.) To those who didn’t suffer the direct impact of any of the 12 storms that made landfall in the U.S., the significance of the storms might not be of particular import. But, failing to believe there’s a relationship to the intensity and frequency of such storms and climate change imperils the world and should be of concern to us all. And yet, there are millions who deny that climate change is real. In a recent YouGov Cambridge Globalism 2020 survey, fully 10% of Americans responding said this statement is definitely true: “The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people”; an additional 17% of Americans polled believe the statement is “probably true”. Even more troubling is that 14% of Americans surveyed believe that climate is changing but that human activity is not responsible at all. (Of the 25 countries included in the survey, the only country with a higher percentage of respondents believing that human activity is not responsible for climate change was Indonesia, with 18% believing that.) 

Huge government expenditures – and therefore huge deficits – also mark 2020 here in Canada (and, I imagine, in other countries). Strict shutdowns, border closures, and stay at home measures brought the economy to a near halt in the spring. So, to help Canadians through the fiscal crisis, the Canadian government made available an array of support payments to help businesses and people. The daily announcements of millions and millions in aid was dizzying and of concern to many taxpayers who feared the government’s seemingly unchecked spending. By the end of November, the Canadian federal government was projecting a $381.6 billion budget deficit for 2020-2021 – up from $39.4 billion for 2019-2020. For a country of just 37.5 million people, $381+ billion is nothing to sneeze at. But, on balance, most Canadians favour temporarily shutting down the economy and offering handouts to help control the pandemic. Still, 2020’s spending will impact us for years to come.

These are just a few examples of the many disturbing numbers that marked 2020 – there are many other shocking numbers we should be concerned about. (The number of lives lost to gun violence in the U.S. has been on my year-end alpha list many, many times and it probably should be mentioned here, as should the number of blacks killed by police. But honestly, I suspect the 2020 figures related to U.S. gun violence and police killing of blacks wasn’t much out of line with what it’s been for a long while.)

My hope for the new year is that 2021 is not marked by horrifying numbers and that at this time next year, we have happier things to reflect on.

Stay well and care for each other now and throughout the New Year.

Thank you for reading On being….

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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