Three writers on the hard lessons of 2020

The pandemic revealed difficult truths about ourselves and our society. Let’s make 2021 better.

happy new year crown amid confetti

(Tina Fineberg/AP)

Cruel, chaotic, catastrophic — how else to describe our year of plague?

To three writers who contribute regularly to Crosscut, these nine months have also been revelatory, shining harsh light on themselves, the economy and the nation's health care system.

Below, Katie Wilson, Lola E. Peters and Samantha Allen grapple with what they've learned in 2020, and plead for a better year ahead.

Jump to the year of empathy fatigue

Jump to the year that we all needed health insurance

Jump to the year that (almost) none of us were OK


Medical professionals load a patient on a gurney into an ambulance at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, March 9, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

2020 was the year of empathy fatigue 

by Katie Wilson

Living through a year like this will, if you let it, teach you things about yourself.

Early on in the pandemic, we were all learning about the coronavirus and COVID-19. It was (we thought) a danger mainly to the old and infirm. Like many of the relatively young and healthy, I imagine, I found myself reacting to this news with relief. But it wasn’t just a feeling of personal safety. There was a subtle sense that, maybe, this pandemic wasn’t so serious after all.

My reaction disturbed me, but I also found it puzzling. The human propensity to cut off part of the human family as “other” and less deserving of empathy is familiar enough. We turn away from people of a different nationality or race, people with a disability, or people who are homeless: That’s not me. That is someone fundamentally different from me. But old age? All of us, if we are lucky, will be old someday. And yet it seemed so easy to accept a literal decimation of our elders, our future selves. 

It would be one thing, perhaps, if COVID-19 took people gently, painlessly, with family and friends gathered around. But it doesn’t. They die alone, terrified, gasping for breath.

In April, I wrote about Shakespeare’s King Lear, reflecting on the fragility of human institutions and our heightened moral responsibility in a deadly pandemic. Now I realize King Lear is the perfect 2020 play for another reason, too. It is very much a play about old age, and about the experience of being discarded by a younger generation to whom you are no longer of use:

O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause, send down, and take my part!

Lear banishes the child who would have lovingly put him up, and put up with him, in his dotage. He leaves himself at the mercy of offspring who, because he no longer wields power over them, and because he is, admittedly, a royal pain, efface his dignity and cast him out to die alone, on the heath, in a pitiless storm. 

This year we were too ready to abandon our old people to that same storm and heath.

I suppose explanations aren’t all that hard to find. Most simply, #capitalism — unless you’re wealthy, you are valued according to your ability to work and produce profit. Retirees need not apply. Moreover, old people today, if they are not holding high public office, really are largely obsolete: biologically, they no longer reproduce; socially, they can’t keep up with our fast-changing digital world; morally — well, if they have wisdom, we don’t let it guide us. When we are young, we don’t like to contemplate our own frailty and eventual demise. Perhaps, if we let ourselves fully empathize with the old, we would have to face our own mortality.

All that figures into it, I’m sure. But I think there’s something else as well, something you might call empathy fatigue. Truly taking seriously another person’s suffering, allowing yourself to feel it, too, compels you to do something about it. When there’s too much pain around, and when you’ve learned through experience the limits of your power to ease it, you have to find a way to shut off. Almost any way will do; it’s a matter of psychological survival. This year, it frightened me how easily and automatically I performed this trick. I don’t think I could have done it so readily a decade ago, or two. Empathy fatigue accumulates over time, maybe irreversibly. It makes us harder and less human. I’d like to live in a world where that doesn’t happen.

Katie Wilson is a contributing columnist and the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.

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In 2020, too many people who lost their job due to COVID-19 also lost their health care. That's not right, writes Lola E. Peters. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

2020 was the year we all needed health insurance

By Lola. E Peters

It started Jan. 7. I was cold, all the time cold. By the 10th I couldn’t stop coughing. But I’m stubborn and was sure I could get through another bout with the flu. I was most angry at getting a flu shot and still being sick. 

By Jan. 10, I had a fever and chest-rattling cough. Hot peppermint tea, honey, oregano, Neti Pot treatments; nothing worked. I curled up in bed over the weekend and went through box after box of tissues. On Wednesday, the 15th, the fever spiked at 103 degrees and finally broke. 

On the 17th I went to the doctor. She diagnosed severe bronchitis, put me on a low-dose prednisone regimen, and told me to use my inhaler. 

My brother was planning a celebration for my birthday, less than a week away, and I wondered if it should be postponed or canceled. Day by day, I recovered, but the cough was incessant, persistent. By the time we gathered at Salty’s on the 21st, I was functional, but the cough, the unending cough, punctuated every attempt at speech. I struggled to find enough breath for an entire sentence. Food had no smell and tasted bland.

Feb. 3 I returned to my primary care doctor, who put me on a second, higher dose, prednisone regimen. Three weeks later she sent me to a cardiologist. Three weeks after that, I saw a pulmonary specialist. On a March 11 return visit to the cardiologist he asked, “Has anyone considered you may have coronavirus?”

Eleven months later and my voice is a gravelly version of its old self. I used to have a three-octave vocal range, now the slightest attempt at singing results in a sore throat for at least a day. Once able to hang out at music venues until at least midnight, now I’m tired by 5 p.m. 

I am grateful: to be alive; to pay my $145 monthly Medicare premium; for a kind landlord; for excellent internet access; to be able to work from home; for West Seattle Thriftway and its immediate pivot to curbside grocery service. And I am most grateful that no one at my birthday dinner became ill.

What have I learned? Here is just one highlight. Health insurance shouldn’t be tied to whether you have a job. I’m old enough to receive a monthly payout from the annuity plan I paid into for over 40 years, called Social Security, and be covered by Medicare. That guaranteed income allowed me to stay home from my part-time work while I was sick without stressing about paying my bills. Because my health insurance is covered by the monthly premiums deducted from my Social Security check, I did not hesitate to go to the doctor or see the specialists needed. How many of the millions who are now out of work live in daily terror of getting COVID-19? How many have died engulfed in that fear?

We can fix this in 2021.

Lola E. Peters is a contributing columnist covering politics, culture and social justice.

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaires have gotten richer while the rest of us have suffered, especially low-wage workers of color, writes Samantha Allen. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

2020 was the year (almost) none of us were OK

By Samantha Allen

This was the year I stopped believing the fiction that we can fix ourselves. Before 2020, like many Americans who have bought into our country’s unique brand of aspirational individualism, I thought that if I only worked harder, ate better, exercised more and carved out time for self-care, I could somehow optimize my life. I could be like those pretty people on social media who seemed to have it all together. And then a disease trapped me inside my home, isolated me from my family and proceeded to ravage the entire country while a significant fraction of the population refused to acknowledge its severity. Meanwhile, a federal government currently spending $1.5 trillion on glitchy fighter jets didn’t even send us enough money to cover an average month’s rent.

At first, I tried to keep it together. I took on extra professional projects. I tried to become a home chef, spending my mornings crafting the perfect breakfast sandwich and wasting a hen’s house worth of eggs in the process. I used bath bombs, as though a tub full of sparkly purple water could make my situation any more tolerable. But it’s not tolerable, is it? Three hundred thousand of us are dead. That number wakes you up real fast to the unsustainability of American life as constituted. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaires have gotten richer while the rest of us have suffered, especially the low-wage workers of color who have kept our country’s already-inadequate systems from collapsing altogether. No amount of bread baking is going to make it any better.

I was certainly aware of the unequal state of things before all this, both intellectually and personally. I’ve seen the charts showing the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and I’ve watched my earning power stagnate while my expenses soar. After surviving open-heart surgery in 2008, I have spent my entire adulthood clinging to costly health insurance plans. (I long for the days when I thought COBRA was just a snake.) But before COVID-19, I still projected the same façade of OK-ness that many of you reading probably did. We met up with our friends and pretended as if we were doing fine, as if we were all on a plausible path to success. It was like a collective staring contest where blinking was tantamount to admitting that you’ve got credit card debt and clinical depression.

So, nine months into this pandemic, I’m done pretending like I’m OK, and I hope you’re ready to throw out your sourdough starters, too. Nothing I do to superficially adjust the quality of the time I spend inside my 500-square-foot apartment can ever compare with the help the United States government could offer if it still believed in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise of freedom from want and freedom from fear. It doesn’t have to be like this — and yet it is.

Lately, we’ve been anthropomorphizing calendar years and ascribing malice to them, as though 2020 were a horror movie villain. But there is nothing inherently evil about the past 12 months, which have actually been the culmination of an economic process that has been accelerating since the ’70s. We might need to wear masks for many more months, but we never again have to cover up how badly we’re doing.

Samantha Allen is a contributing columnist and the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States.

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