A year of plague, fire and blood: but also hope?

2020 was a collective trauma, but also a year of the people

Joshua Collins
Dec 27, 2020 · 5 min read
A street during the plague in London via Wikimedia Commons

Forty thousand terrified and angry people, dressed in rags and improvised cloth masks yelled at police, begging not to be left stranded on the wrong side of a closed frontier. Oily black smoke from trash being burnt on the Venezuelan side blotted out the sun, and riot police stood by, ready to respond with physical violence. Global plague had reached the Colombia-Venezuelan border, and the result was apocalyptic, more reminiscent of zombie films than the cold reality it truly was.

It was March, and authorities across Latin America were closing all land borders with little to no advance notice. For all of us, the true moment of crisis crystalizing into reality was different, depending on where we were in the world, but for me, I was on the border watching a desperate multitude of vulnerable people trying desperately to get back home.

I struggled to get a flight back to Bogota, where I live, before airports closed. I made it onto one of the last planes to leave before domestic transportation completely shut down. At the time, a girl I was dating was supposed to visit from Ecuador two days later. Coronavirus and closed borders kept us apart for 10 months. Despite our efforts during that time to find workarounds, I would never see her again.

2020 was unprecedented in history as the most restrictive year on record. Most of the world imposed travel restrictions at some point or another, and in Latin America most countries were closed completely. In Colombia for the first three months of lockdown my personal borders were restricted even further. I was relegated to the four walls of my shared apartment.

The isolation was devastating. We faced it as a world, but each of us also faced it alone. It was a paradox. Physically separated, we shared contact through the web: social media, zoom meetings, phone calls. 2020 was a black and lonely year — it was also a year of fire and plague — but there is one trend which gave me hope: those willing to resist authoritarian overreach took to the streets of the world.

I would break the law early in quarantine here in Colombia by taking long walks late at night on the way to and from the grocery store. We were allowed out to shop for food and only to shop for food, but I deviated, adding a half hour to and from. I was nearly always the only pedestrian in a silent, lonely city shrouded in blackness — a city once colorful, vibrant and chaotic populated now only by shadows and phantasms.

I travel a lot for work, and it’s unusual for me to spend so much time in one place. In the past I have described familiar places as “full of ghosts”. When I walk familiar places, old memories haunt me. I dwell on them and they affect me. I’m more accustomed to being on the go than living in the past. Exploring unknown places isn’t only how I make my living as a journalist, it’s also how I live my life.

The idea of a city full of ghosts took on new meaning in 2020 — less a poetic turn of phrase and more a cold reality. Almost 1.8 million people lost their lives. For loved ones haunted by the memories of these irreplaceable souls lost to global epidemic, there is no poetry, only grief. In Ecuador and Italy, morgues ran out of space.

In Colombia, ghosts also haunted the nation due to secondary effects of the virus. Those in the poor neighborhoods of the outer rings of Bogota hung red cloths in their windows as cries for help. Hunger ravaged the country. So did violence. Mass-killings and assassinations hit record highs since the peace accord was signed in 2016.

I didn’t lose anyone to COVID, but I talked to a lot of people who did, both directly and due to side-effects of rising violence. At the peak of lockdown here in Colombia, the United States burst into flames. Protesters surrounded the White House and burned down police stations in Minneapolis in a national anti-police movement that shook the very foundations of governance. They were the biggest protests in almost 60 years. Colombia burst into protest as well, and they were bloody. Anti-police demonstrations in the capital resulted in at least 13 dead and over 400 wounded as state forces fired on crowds with live ammunition.

public domain image of the Black plague

In many ways, 2020 was also a year of anti-authoritarianism as people pushed back against governments using the crisis to push their own objectives under cover of public health and a distracted global media. Belarus, Thailand, Guatemala, Chile, Bulgaria and Sudan spilled into the streets. Peru deposed a president.

It was a dark, lonely, fiery and deadly year, but it was also one in which people rose up with fury against their oppressors. It was a year of collective global tragedy. We all shared an experience of trauma, in one form or another. Conspiracy theories flourished and cities burned. Polarization and inequality grew alongside one another and the result was predictable — civil and political strife.

It’s a trend likely to continue in 2021. The full impacts of economic contraction have yet to be truly felt, and global political instability is likely to continue, especially here in Latin America. As for me, I’m now an illegal immigrant in Colombia and I end the year pretty much as I began it: broke, writing and single. But I’m alive, which is more than almost 1.8 million people can say.

I’m also hopeful. Many governments tried to use this tragedy as a cover to spread lies, impose authoritarian policies and to push shadowy agendas. Disinformation and chaos thrived. But people across the world also stood up, sometimes facing down State forces in the street. Global movements were born and grew, much to the chagrin of those who hold the reins of power. That is likely to continue. There is a silver lining to the global cloud of pestilence and tear gas.

And yet, I think the truest summation of 2020 I can find is “Fuck THAT year, amirite?”

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia. He has been published at Vice, Al Jazeera, the New Humanitarian among other outlets. For more stories you can follow him on twitter or visit www.murosinvisibles.com

Muros Invisibles

Latin American News from the front lines

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