2021 was a year of mixed sentiment, as the world experienced wild and unpredictable changes. Vaccines encouraged optimism and allowed reopenings, but large-scale inoculation efforts were hit by misinformation and unequal distribution. As we continue to witness a transforming landscape and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, Covid-19 remains a serious threat.
In some ways, the past twelve months have brought about more exhaustion and uncertainty. In others, it was a year of cautious optimism for the future.
Exhaustion and uncertainty
Almost two years into the pandemic, news headlines and everyday conversations are still dominated by the fight against the virus and its impact on our lives, often causing Covid fatigue–a tiredness that cannot be resolved by sleep. We’ve all had to deal with an evolving danger–literally–along with a rollercoaster of emotions, from hopelessness to hope, and back again.
At the one year mark of the pandemic last spring, there was growing expectation that we might be turning a corner, but due to mutations in the virus and an uneven vaccine rollout, many of the same problems and challenges still exist. Sadly, cases continue to rise, and more deaths were reported this year than in 2020. Today, it seems we are barely any closer to the end.
According to the vast majority of scientists and doctors, the fastest way to end the pandemic is by vaccinating the world. At the present moment, however, only 7 percent of people in low-income countries have received a vaccine dose, compared to over 75 percent in high-income countries.
The swift, successful development and large-scale delivery of Covid vaccinations is an incredible achievement. We can be inspired and grateful, yet recognise, as the World Health Organization has advised, “it’s not vaccines that will stop the pandemic, it’s vaccination.”
We can each do our part to end the pandemic by accepting the offer when our turn comes. This helps yourself, but also your family, neighbours, colleagues, and the wider community. Taking a vaccine “clearly, by far and wide reduces the risk of problems that you could have if you should catch Covid,” said Dr Amir Janmohamed from Ontario, Canada. “You are safer getting a vaccine than not getting one.”
If you know someone who has been offered the jab and hasn’t come forward yet, consider having a kind and patient conversation with them. There’s a difference between those who are hesitant about vaccination and people who are completely against it. Reserve judgement and instead listen with empathy. Ask open-ended questions about their concerns, share trusted information, and leave the door open for further discussion.
While the phrase “none of us is safe until all of us are safe” may appear clichéd, it accurately describes our current predicament. The sooner we align with this thinking, the sooner we can begin looking beyond this ongoing state of emergency.
Amid the continuing disruption, this year was also one of restored and renewed hope in some quarters. After many months of anticipation, Jamatkhanas finally began to reopen in the spring, bringing back a sense of solace after a long hiatus.
“Once I heard that my Jamatkhana was reopening I felt a huge sense of relief,” said Zamila Rayani from the UK. “It was a sign of the beginning of getting back to some kind of normal.”
A huge volunteer effort began in earnest to prepare the various premises and protect the health and safety of returning members of the Jamat, while maintaining the sanctity of the spaces.
“When attending for the first time again, I felt privileged to go back to a place of peace, of unity, and of belonging,” Zamila continued. “I felt that a void in my life would now be filled and remain as such.”
As we entered the summer months, the Aga Khan University (AKU) and the University of Central Asia (UCA) both held virtual convocation ceremonies to celebrate the achievements of their graduating students. In a historic occasion, AKU was also awarded a new charter in Kenya.
The events were streamed live on The Ismaili TV, which also aired educational and entertaining festival programming around Navroz, Imamat Day, Eid, and Salgirah this year. The Ismaili Sounds continued to release new music from talented artists in the Jamat, and 2021 also saw new additions to The Ismaili Podcasts.
For many Ismailis, the inaugural Global Ismaili CIVIC Day was another highlight of the year, offering the opportunity to demonstrate our community’s ethics of good citizenship and civic engagement.
The initiative brought together members of the Jamat to engage in acts of volunteering and service for the betterment of our societies. Over 30,000 volunteers in 30 countries brought passion, energy, and enthusiasm to over 600 activities, contributing hundreds of thousands of hours of service.
Many Ismailis also followed with interest the developments at the COP26 conference in October, where world leaders gathered to discuss the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. While obstacles remain, the pacts agreed at the conference were broadly positive, and will amount to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and fossil fuel use.
For its part, the Aga Khan Development Network made a landmark announcement to coincide with COP26, pledging to become net-zero carbon by 2030.
Other positive developments in the world this year included a growing trust in science and scientists; news of the first ever 3D printed school; and a rising awareness and concern about mental health conditions, thanks in part to athletes and others coming forward to share their experiences.
We also witnessed brave sacrifices by healthcare professionals, teachers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, volunteers, and others whose resilience kept societies functioning over the past 12 months. The end of the calendar year is an opportunity to give thanks for their service.
As we approach the new year, we are still in the throes of a global crisis. The Omicron variant has the potential to cause havoc, but societies in general, and scientists in particular, are hopefully better prepared this time.
Are we nearly there yet?
The rational answer to questions about when the pandemic might end is that we don’t yet know, since things are changing so fast. We should perhaps have the humility to admit that we cannot be sure what’s next, or how far away we are from some of the freedoms we once enjoyed.
“Because it exists in our heads as well as in the physical world, the pandemic is partly about us – how we each individually feel,” said Danny Dorling, a professor at the University of Oxford. “The return of normality therefore won’t be marked by life returning to what it was before 2020, but by us feeling that things are normal again.”
As such, it might be wiser to let go of our pre-pandemic lives and instead accept that today’s era of unpredictability might be here to stay. Constantly adapting to change is tiring, but we must each find the strength of faith to keep moving forward in the face of new hurdles, supporting one another in the process, and accepting support where needed.
At a speech made in Nairobi in 2011, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of the uncertainty in life and how to best prepare for change. “The most important thing we can learn,” he said, “in a world of perpetual change is the ability to go on learning. None of us have all the answers - quite often we don’t even know what questions to ask. Nor can we discern the road ahead by looking in a rear-view mirror. Past lessons must constantly be renewed and reapplied, as we adapt to new technologies and new expectations.”
As 2021 draws to a close, we can draw lessons from how much more we know about Covid-19, about our own resilience, and about each other. We might also aim to adapt to new expectations about what normality looks and feels like for each one of us.
Finally, as we venture forward into more unknowns, we can take heart from the people and projects that continue to inspire us and give us hope for a healthier, more inclusive, and more sustainable world in 2022.