It is tempting to think that we can just leave 2020 behind and look ahead to a fresh new year. However, this might be short-sighted. The bigger picture suggests that collectively, we have never learned so much in such a short space of time — about the world, about each other, and about ourselves. It would be wise to hold on to these lessons, as we may soon need to put them into action...

A year like no other

Because it was a leap year, 2020 was one day longer than 2019, though it felt like many more. One struggles to even remember last January. This is mostly because the Covid-19 pandemic dominated news coverage more than any other topic since the second world war. The novel coronavirus has infected over 70 million people and caused at least 1.7 million deaths. Many survivors are now living with the effects of ‘long Covid.’

Back in March of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global pandemic and uncertainty began to spread faster than the virus itself. Lockdowns were soon put in place across the world. We prepared for a crisis. Panic-buying set in, schools and shops closed, and busy streets quietened to a whisper.

We thought at first that life would return to normal in a matter of weeks. Then months. Or could it be years? What we thought was normal was no longer. The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns have been particularly isolating for elderly people, and particularly disorienting for young children. Both these groups, and everyone in between, were required to adjust physically, mentally, and emotionally to a ‘new normal,’ or a series of ‘next normals,’ involving an overnight loss of freedoms. 

Working from home blurred the boundaries between labour and leisure time, leading many to work longer hours than ever before. Days were difficult to tell apart, and weeks seemed to merge into one another. Living rooms became offices and bedrooms became classrooms. We learned about Zoom, and soon after, Zoom-fatigue. We also felt guilty about complaining too much, as others had it much worse.

Sadly, some lost loved ones, and were not even able to grieve in customary ways. Others lost their jobs, businesses, and even their homes. Efforts to combat the pandemic have come at the cost of economic hardship, mental illness, delays to medical services, escalating inequity, and interruptions to education. And the end might not be as close as we hoped.

The head of the WHO emergencies program, Dr Mark Ryan recently said, “We live in an increasingly complex global society. These threats will continue. If there is one thing we need to take from this pandemic, with all of the tragedy and loss, is we need to get our act together. We need to honour those we’ve lost by getting better at what we do every day.”

The events of this year should make us reflect with greater clarity on the risks and threats facing the planet and its people. More than this, our experiences should also equip us to be better prepared for future outbreaks of disease and other large-scale emergencies. 

Getting our act together

We asked many questions this year. About microbial particles, screen time, anxiety, depression, climate change, natural and manmade disasters, and about injustice. We found that the answers often led to more questions.

Across the world, people raised their voices to demand fairer, kinder, and more equitable societies. Public attention became better focused on the realities of discrimination, while politicians and corporate leaders were challenged and quizzed on what matters most in life. Some responses were no more than token gestures, but others were significant and unprecedented.

We also learned to act in unity at a global scale. We witnessed scientists developing treatments and therapies, people talking more openly about mental health, young leaders advocating for climate action, and Ismaili volunteers launching a streaming TV channel. Ironically, the planet-wide effort of disconnecting physically has made us realise again how emotionally and spiritually connected we really are.

At a time when in-person gatherings became impossible, our community was still able to connect across the world and engage with one another via The Ismaili digital platform, and even celebrate our major festivals of Navroz, Imamat Day, Eid, and Salgirah collectively as One Jamat, together at home. 

While we were socially distancing, scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, and logistics experts were hard at work to find a way out of this crisis. We must not forget the crucial role of thousands of selfless volunteers who participated in clinical vaccine trials for the benefit of us all. With the international approval of the initial set of vaccines, we experienced anticipation, relief, and a sense of wonder at the talent and determination of which human society is capable.

The first internationally approved vaccine, by Pfizer/BioNTech, was formulated in Germany by Turkish migrants, developed by a US-based pharmaceutical company, and produced in Belgium, a poignant illustration that knowledge sharing and reaching across borders was a key feature of science in 2020. The diverse and global nature of society cannot be ignored and the sooner we acknowledge that pluralism is a strength, the sooner we can step into a brighter, post-Covid future.

The rapid work to develop, test, produce, and deliver a number of effective Covid vaccines is a staggering and encouraging scientific achievement, one which offers a collective sense of hope and confidence that when we pull together, we have the ability to tackle the problems that humanity may have to face in 2021 and beyond.

Looking ahead

This year certainty evaporated before our eyes. We were each tested to varying degrees of difficulty. Entering into a new year will not erase the adversity or suffering of the previous 12 months, and nor should it.

We know we don’t have all the answers, but recent months have provided some of the most important lessons we’ve ever learned, helping us to grow and mature beyond our years. As 2020 began, our aims might have been material in nature: a promotion, or a shiny new purchase. Today, those aspirations have been willingly exchanged for things that matter more: visiting family, seeing friends, attending Jamatkhana. 

Because of the current hiatus of such freedoms, this has been the most difficult year that many of us can remember. However, turbulent times have invariably inspired human progress. Some have suggested that pent-up demand resulting from mass shutdowns could lead to a new ‘roaring twenties’ filled with forward-looking innovation and novelty.

So in facing uncertainty, which strategy is best to go along with? As with most things, it’s likely a combination: intentionally and intelligently looking ahead with a balance of humility and confidence. Humility can help us notice blind spots and develop problem-solving capacities, while self-confidence promotes resilience, courage, and motivation, which can help us get through the long days of January and beyond.

As Mawlana Hazar Imam said in his Talika Mubarak on 13 December, “It is a matter of satisfaction that my Jamat continues to draw inspiration from our historic tradition of facing adversity with unity, resolve and resilience, and I am convinced that my Jamat will emerge from the present crisis with enhanced strength and capacities as we plan for the future.”

An opportunity to reflect

The year 2020 awoke feelings we had never before experienced. It taught us that life is fragile, and that things can change in an instant. It encouraged us to care more for our general health. To better appreciate nature. To be grateful for key workers, teachers, public transport staff, delivery drivers, and healthcare heroes. It taught us empathy, patience, and adaptation. We can say we lived through a momentous period in history. How often does the world change, overnight? For basically everyone on Earth? 

Amid the exhausting, uncertain reality of today’s world, there is wonder too. We have shared grief, loss, hardships, and illness, but we’ve also persevered. We have learned what resilience really means. We have shown we are strong enough to face uncertainty.

Hope is what makes us human, and right now, hope is still present. As time progresses, the endless scrolling and Zoom calls can stop, we may begin gathering again, and with some luck, handshakes and hugs will return.

This year, every Jamati institution, and every member of the Jamat has been tested. Yet, we are still here. Looking ahead, 2021 promises many more ups and downs. As we enter into a new year, not only can we be optimistic about the future, but in years to come, we may even look back at 2020 and be grateful.