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Reflections on the Year of the Rat

The signs were there from the very start that 2020 was going to be a year we wouldn’t forget

SO that’s 2020 done with then.

I’ve never been much for celebrating new year’s or for the concept that flicking the calendar over to a new page will magically eradicate all the problems of the past 12 months. After all, on the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Rat (how appropriate) does not finish for a few more weeks. These are just arbitrary dates, heavy with the symbolism of a fresh start, but to nature it means nothing. Life goes on, good and bad.

But as a student of history, I am drawn to the idea that years can take on a particular character almost as if they have a life of their own: 1066, for instance — or 1789 or 1968 or 1989.

And so it will be that 2020 will be remembered as the year of the coronavirus pandemic.

But how will future historians judge our behaviour in 2020? By any measure, the COVID-19 pandemic is relatively minor compared to the great influenza outbreak of 1917 or any number of plagues and other disease outbreaks over the centuries.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people living in the Third World, die each year from diseases for which we have known cures, such as typhoid, cholera and smallpox, let alone malnutrition and poor water quality.

It’s hyperbolic to describe 2020 — as some people have — as the worst year in history (there are plenty of other contenders for that title, 1939 and 1918 immediately spring to mind as relatively recent shockers).

That COVID so gripped our attention and paralysed our way of life says more about our narcissistic self-obsession than the virus. For the first time since World War II, the developed world was confronted with a natural force beyond its control with the power to alter the way we lead our daily lives. No amount of wealth or material possessions could protect us; the virus does not discriminate between the rich and poor.

The public health response imposed restrictions on our ways of life that none of us were prepared for; we were simply too complacent in our material comfort to contemplate the idea that things like overseas travel, restaurant dining, and a wide variety of entertainments, could be taken away from us. The way we reacted to these restrictions and constraints was a shameless display of First World privilege.

It’s disturbing to think that if COVID had been contained in China, or if it had been one of those diseases that was confined to the Third World, like ebola, 2020 would have been a year just like any other.

Or would it?

Relatives of a 71-year-old woman who died of the coronavirus disease mourn at a cemetery in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, in May. Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

LOOKING back, last year was defined for me by two intertwined events: the pandemic, and US politics, but the nightmare that was 2020 actually began on 12 December 2019, the day when Boris Johnson was re-elected with a landslide majority of 80 seats.

For half a decade, the progressive left around the world had invested its hope in Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of radicalism which had come tantalisingly close to winning power in 2017, but the devastating result in December — which saw the Tories gain 48 seats and breach the ‘red wall’ in northern England — was an emphatic rejection of Corbynism and an endorsement of right wing populism. It seemed like people weren’t so ready for socialism after all (a lesson Bernie Sanders’ supporters failed to heed). This was an ominous foretaste of what was to come in 2020.

As the clock ticked over into the new decade, most of south-east Australia was shrouded in smoke from the worst bushfires in living memory, a mega inferno that tore through millions of hectares of parched bush and farm land and destroyed everything in its path. Here was undeniable evidence of the impact of climate change on our environment, seemingly a wake up call that action could be postponed no longer.

At the beginning of 2020, I began a journal in which every night I diligently recorded the news of the day and my thoughts and reactions to it. As would be expected, the first pages are dominated by the bushfires.

On 4 January, we drove to Canberra for a week-long holiday, skirting the major fires in the Snowy Mountains on the way. Near Euroa, we picked up a radio report of a small blaze and minutes later a helicopter flew over us and dumped a bucket of fire retardant on the bush less than a kilometre away. At the time, we were impressed by the rapid response, but a week later the fire was still out of control, having spread to a large area of northern Victoria.

My second diary entry on 2 January reads: “Fires still burning — up to 17 people missing in Victoria . . . It feels like the country is at war. The scenes of thousands of people huddled under a blood red sky at Mallacoota — those unlucky enough not to get out earlier — and reports that the Navy is on the way to evacuate them by sea reminded me of Dunkirk.”

On our first morning in Canberra, we woke to find the capital choked in a thick cloud of beige coloured smoke, forcing most tourist attractions to close. One of the few places that remained open was Parliament House, but even there, in the Senate chamber, you could smell the smoke, while the flag pole atop parliament was barely visible. In the afternoon, we visited a shopping mall only to arrive as most shops began closing as the smoke seeped within its walls as well.

And then five days later, on 7 January: “The smoke may have lifted from Canberra but outside this bubble the bushfire disaster continues. There are now fires in WA and the blazes have spread and joined in Victoria and NSW. Australia is rapidly becoming an international pariah (again) as the rest of the world twigs how little we have done over the years to deal with climate change . . . It would be nice to imagine this could be our climate version of Port Arthur — but I fear that’s not to be.”

A volunteer firefighter works on controlled back burns near Sydney in November 2019, a precursor to the devastation in January. Photo: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

BY late January, the bushfire crisis was over and pages of my journal were filled with tidbits about the US Democratic primaries and analysis of (hopefully) Trump’s final State of the Union address.

Death populates the early pages of my journal. Within a couple of weeks in February, two of my closest mates lost parents and my mother’s best friend — a woman we called ‘Auntie Jill’ — passed away in New Zealand. But coronavirus doesn’t appear for the first time until 4 March when I wrote: “Coronavirus has reached peak stupidity with people panic buying toilet paper, canned foods and other non-perishables, as if the apocalypse is coming.”

And four days later: “People are completely losing their shit, fighting over rolls of toilet paper in the supermarket; it’s a precursor for the type of total dystopian anarchy we can expect when the climate crisis becomes real. Society is evolving back to primitive days in front of our eyes.”

But incrementally, my cynicism about the pandemic was overtaken by the reality of its spread into Australia. On 15 March, my journal records: “It feels like waiting for the end of the world. Every couple of hours we get a new announcement: tonight’s was a total ban on any international travel to Australia . . . People are wandering around trying to live their lives as normal, but fully conscious that this time next week, all schools and most shops may be closed, along with public transport and most forms of entertainment. Tonight we went out to dinner almost as a last supper; it may be the last restaurant meal we have for a month.” That turned out to be optimistic.

The journal continues through the first lockdown, and then onto the verge of the second, chronicling the stresses and anxieties within our household. Mother’s Day comes and goes, school and work weeks pass in a blur. I try to maintain a daily cycling routine, read more books than in a normal year. And then, on Sunday, 17 May: “More small progress today when we visited Mum and Dad’s for the first time in a month . . . They both seemed a little more frail than last time I saw them, which is not surprising given their age.”

Restrictions continue to be eased and a fortnight later my father-in-law celebrates his 70th birthday at our house. With the coronavirus seemingly under control in Victoria, my attention turns to more substantial matters in the US.

“America is burning with riots across the country,” I write on 31 May. “The initial protests were spurred by the murder of an unarmed black man by a Minnesota cop . . . but it’s quickly become something much bigger, an uprising of the oppressed against their oppressors. They are revolting against centuries of racial, political, economic and social oppression, but what makes this moment historically significant is that the man in the White House is probably the most overt representative of that oppression who has ever occupied the West Wing.”

Pages are occupied with my conflicted thoughts about the Black Lives Matter protests and how best to seize this moment. Is violent protest the answer? Does toppling statues of white men solve the problems confronting Black people today? And of greatest concern: will all this play into Trump’s hands when election day comes in November? I agonise that Trump will impose martial law or turn the anarchy on the streets of major American cities to his own political advantage. And I feel guilt for not joining protests here in Australia.

To me, the defining image of 2020 will be Trump’s photo op with a Bible outside the fire damaged St John’s Episcopal Church on 1 June. That moment — which occurred after riot police used tear gas to clear a peaceful protest so Trump could have his moment in front of the cameras — represented the venality, arrogance and inhumanity of Trump in a single image.

A girl holds her fist in the air while visiting the memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, days after he was killed while in police custody on 25 May. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

MY diary arrives at Sunday, 21 June with the news that rather than a further relaxation of restrictions as expected, following a spike in coronavirus cases the state government has decided to extend the current state of emergency for another month. The cause of this new spike is unclear at that stage.

Nine days later on 30 June, I write that Daniel Andrews has announced a full lockdown of 10 postcodes around Melbourne as infection rates continue to rise. Turn the page to Wednesday, 8 July, and I have written: “In less than an hour, Melbourne will begin a second six week period of full lockdown: no leaving home except for work if it is essential, exercise, shopping or a medical appointment.”

But it could be worse: three thousand public housing residents in Flemington, Kensington and North Melbourne have been locked inside their towers since Sunday, with police and soldiers keeping guard outside. “Where this will all end, I have no idea,” I write. “The infection rate in Victoria is increasing by triple figures every day and is now higher than in April . . . There’s now a real sense of futility and doom that life will never be able to return to normal, because this has come just as normality was returning. And so, we are back where we started.”

The diary ends there, not because of a lack of will to continue, but because I had run out of pages in my notebook. So I have no daily record of the seemingly endless weeks of imprisonment in our own homes, the gradual freeing of restrictions and the reunification with friends and family. I remember the first few weeks of the second lockdown being dogged by a constant fog of exhaustion from the moment I woke each morning, and an accompanying lack of motivation. But I think I coped better than most people.

Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on 5 October following three days of receiving medical treatment after he tested positive for coronavirus. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

WITHOUT a journal, I have no daily record of how I felt as the US election approached but I know that I was always confident that Trump would lose, even though I fully expected he would pull out all stops to undermine the election result.

At some stage in October, Victoria’s restrictions began to be lifted and the year limped to an end. But even as life was returning to normal here, the pandemic worsened in the US and western Europe, where a terrible price was about to be paid for a lack of vigilance and failed leadership during the northern summer.

The pandemic exposed the fragility of our economic and social institutions, and at some stage during 2020, I had held out hope that it — and the accompanying economic crisis — would lead to a complete revision of the neo-liberal agenda that had undermined the safety net, social institutions and secure work.

Here was an opportunity to reset the direction of our economy and society, to create a more inclusionary approach that would ensure no-one was left behind and close the inequality gap. I even fantasised that with a similar common will and desire to work together, we might finally be able to collectively tackle climate change.

And for a short while, after governments around the world rolled out Keynesian emergency packages and mostly adopted a consensus driven approach to governing, it looked like change was possible. But of course, as I suspected in my pessimism, it didn’t last. The mood which had driven Boris Johnson to power in December had not been eradicated.

The year 2020 ended with Trump on a killing spree while pardoning murderers, crooks and corrupt politicians in between rounds of golf as his final days in office became a metaphor for the venality, corruption and incompetence of his entire term. Britain ended 2020 physically and figuratively shut off from the rest of Europe as the Brexit deal went through while the pandemic remained out of control, and even here in Australia a handful of new cases sparked limited restrictions and the closure of interstate borders.

President-elect Joe Biden greets crowd after his address to the nation upon claiming victory from Wilmington, Delaware on 7 November. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

THE new year begins with our politics as polarised and divided as ever, with right wing populists reigning supreme almost everywhere and the status quo unchanged. Gaping problems remain with no long term strategy or action on climate change and insecure work.

There are some greenshoots of hope, beginning on 20 January when Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President. The Black Lives Matter protests seem to have created unstoppable momentum that will finally force the US and other countries to reckon with uneasy questions of race.

And on a personal front, I rode almost 3400 kilometres on my bike, read close to 20 books, contributed to three anthologies of short stories, including one self-published collection, and learnt how to smoke a ham for Christmas. So the Year of the Rat wasn’t a total waste.

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, journalist & communicator based in Melbourne, Australia. Author of Radio City: the First 30 Years of 3RRR-FM.

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