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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Why 2020 Might Have Been the Wake-Up Call We Needed

It may seem like things are falling apart this year, but it's actually a new beginning.

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A protester holds a placard saying ' enough is enough' as...SOPA Images/Getty Images

The year everything changed

It’s no secret that 2020 has been rough so far. The year started out with massive bushfires in Australia, then quickly segued into the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, once states started the process of reopening at the end of May, George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis and it was caught on video, providing graphic visuals to the plague of police violence that never seems to improve. Since then, there have been protests in all 50 states against racial injustice, some of which have turned violent—many at the hands of police officers. Adding to everything is the upcoming presidential election in November, coming at a time when the country is extremely divided.

Because of all of this, this year has already gotten a bad rap, and we’re not even halfway through it. Some have pointed out that 2020 is basically a combination of 1918 (when there was another global pandemic) and 1968 (when there were widespread demonstrations and unrest during the fight for civil rights). But others have taken a different view. One protest sign we saw recently sums it up nicely: “2020 is not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of a new one.” Looking at it that way isn’t only optimistic—it makes sense. Though tumultuous, this year has brought to light a lot of issues involving public health, systemic racism, and how we treat the planet, among others. Here are 12 ways that 2020 might be the wake-up call we needed.

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Women seated at separate tables speak with each otherSDI Productions/Getty Images

It could change the way we treat each other

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, it was pretty easy to go about only thinking about yourself and your family, without having to consider the safety or needs of other people. But according to Michael Baur, PhD, an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University, this year may change that. “The year 2020 is turning out to be a year in which our hindsight really is 20/20, in the sense that we have had the occasion to become more clear-sighted about our deep interconnectedness and mutual dependence on one another—even though we could have and should have been aware of these things beforehand,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “The coronavirus pandemic has made us more sensitive to the fact that the seemingly innocent freedoms and conveniences of some people can have a severe and detrimental impact on the well-being of others; and the brutality of system-wide police practices has forced us to reckon with the fact that the seemingly innocent comfort and safety of many (white) Americans is often purchased at the high cost of extreme discomfort and insecurity for many other (non-white) Americans.” These 21 moving photos during the coronavirus pandemic show that kindness is alive and well. 

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Everyone needs a bit of helpljubaphoto/Getty Images

It has made us more aware of economic disparities

In addition to the health impact, the COVID-19 outbreak has also caused people of color to take an economic hit. For example, coronavirus layoffs have disproportionately impacted people of color. “Just as earthquakes expose the fault lines in the earth, the pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our economy and civic institutions,” Marc Morial, CEO and president of the National Urban League, and mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002, tells Reader’s Digest. “The decade-long economic expansion that just ended, blinded much of America to the stark disparities festering just beneath the surface. The much-touted ‘lowest Black unemployment rate in history’ consistently was twice the rate for white Americans, and many of those who were employed were barely hanging on. Whenever the economy collapses, Black Americans are disproportionately crushed under the rubble. Now, we have an opportunity to rebuild a more equitable economy. We don’t want to look back on 2020 as the year we blew our chance.” For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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Woman wearing a mask on the London subway or tubeAlex Robinson Photography/Getty Images

It has given us a better understanding of public health

As Americans, we’ve been taught that we’re in control of our own bodies, and are entitled to autonomy and freedom. So during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became the first time many people have even thought in terms of public health, and how their health behaviors could impact other people. That includes improved hygiene habits like more frequent hand-washing, wearing a face mask when appropriate, and being careful with high-touch surfaces and anything communal. “Not only does the virus force us to recognize that we are all bound to each other, but it also highlights that the only way through is to stand together to support each other, identify vulnerabilities and eliminate them where possible even if it seems that this comes at some cost to ourselves,” Lisa Eckenwiler, PhD, professor of philosophy in George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, tells Reader’s Digest. “Times like these, though, with death counts in the hundreds of thousands and life-years and opportunities lost inestimable, find us re-assessing what we value and how. Solidarity would have us value one another and our shared—and more equitable—welfare above all else.”

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Aerial shot of one car on freewayThomas Northcut/Getty Images

It has made us rethink about our energy sources

Car traffic may be down by 40 percent across the country during the pandemic, but even with that, ozone pollution has decreased only slightly. On top of that, President Donald Trump issued two executive orders on June 4 that minimize key environmental protections, using the pandemic as justification. One temporarily speeds up the construction of energy projects, and the other permanently weakens federal authority to issue stringent clean air and climate change rules, the New York Times reports. “The climate change debate has long centered on immediate versus long-term impacts on the world,” Shuli Goodman, PhD, executive director at LF Energy, a non-profit coalition working to address the climate crisis, tells Reader’s Digest. “With this latest executive order, this administration has made it clear that it prioritizes immediate economic boosts over long-term impacts of climate change, even though Americans employed in clean energy outnumber those in fossil fuels three-to-one…By focusing on polluting energy and believing that the ’emergency’ warrants a response like this, the government is operating counter to the reality of the situation. European countries are funding the transition [to clean energy] because that is the future. The United States is funding fossil fuels and doubling down on the past.” According to Goodman, governments must set policies that address long-term effects. “Ideally, there should be a financial mechanism such as carbon taxes,” she explains. “Governments are responsible for setting the standards for businesses and consumers to decrease their carbon footprints and recognize the impact their consumption patterns have on the environment.” These photos show how nature has rebounded during coronavirus.

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Aerial View Of Pregnant Mother Working From HomeTom Werner/Getty Images

It could result in more opportunity to work remotely

Prior to the pandemic, working from home wasn’t standard, and typically included as part of a benefits package. But at this point, we have established that many job positions can be done successfully from home. In fact, according to a recent Gartner poll, 48 percent of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19, versus 30 percent before the pandemic. “Many people have reported an improvement in work-life quality with the ability to be able to work from home and spend more quality time with family members,” Eudene Harry, MD, a former ER doctor and health expert, tells Reader’s Digest. “Many families have gotten to know each other better and have formed closer bonds.”

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Smoke emerging from chimneysAlexandros Maragos/Getty Images

It gives us the opportunity to “reset” our approach to climate change

Depending on where you live, the impact of fossil fuel usage can be varying degrees of problematic, because not all people are impacted by the climate crisis equally. For example, according to Goodman, this type of pollution is incredibly problematic in the United States, but less so somewhere like sub-Saharan Africa, where your carbon impact is probably not high. Regardless of location, those in lower-income areas experience the brunt of the crisis. “Whether they live near high-industry zones or in rural areas, climate change could have major consequences depending on how big or little our actions are,” Goodman explains. “We need to implement renewable sources of energy to reduce fossil fuel use and pollution, but updating the grid to support this switch can create ‘electricity deserts’ in remote or low-income areas where utility companies see little financial value in infrastructure updates. Right now we have a unique opportunity to ‘reset’ our approach to climate change in a way that helps all people, not just those with excess money and resources—but only if we decide to work together.”

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Voting Booths with no peopleadamkaz/Getty Images

It may result in higher voter turnout

As we mentioned before, there’s a presidential election coming up later this year, as well as many state and local elections. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against racial injustice bringing so many issues to light, it reinforces the importance of voting. “If we do things right, 2020 will be the year we realize our democracy cannot be taken for granted,” Lauren Baer, a former State Department senior advisor and congressional candidate from Florida, tells Reader’s Digest. “As we witness innocents die from police violence, watch peaceful protesters being met with military force, and hear the president spewing a politics of hate and division, it’s becoming clear: America is what we make it. Our values only mean something if they guide our actions. And it’s up to each of us to ensure that we continue to build a more perfect union, day by day, voice by voice, vote by vote.”

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Food For The Poor To Feed the Hungrykuarmungadd/Getty Images

It gives us the chance to revisit the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Between all the sickness, death, racial injustices, and collapsing economy, 2020 has given us a lot to think about in terms of how we function as a society. “This year should serve as a wake-up call for these issues, but also other issues that average people, politicians, media, and technology elites have largely ignored,” M. Joel Voss, PhD, assistant professor in the department of political science and public administration at the University of Toledo, tells Reader’s Digest. “It is time for stakeholders around the world to consider more seriously the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” The SDGs encompass 17 different goals and include metrics to hit or surpass each goal. In addition to taking action on climate change, other goals include “zero hunger,” “reduced inequalities,” “quality education,” and “sustainable cities and communities” just to name a few. Read more about 13 everyday habits that could (and should) change after coronavirus.

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Two friends stuck at home wave to each other during Covid-19 pandemicDutcherAerials/Getty Images

It has made us realize how social we actually are

For many of us, this is the start of our fourth month in lockdown. If you’re been quarantining with your family, partner, or roommates, you may wish you had more alone-time. But for those who live alone, the isolation has been a lot. “Many people had to come to terms with their difficult and complicated emotions during this very trying and unprecedented time,” Pavan Madan, MD, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry, tells Reader’s Digest. “Humans are social animals. Research has shown that good social support is protective in preventing and treating several mental health conditions, including depression. While social isolation has made it difficult for some to have the support, others have become acutely aware of the impact of social isolation on their lives and have taken steps to keep in touch with their family and friends more than ever before.” But, we may be headed for a second wave of coronavirus. Here’s what that could look like.

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Portrait of senior man with respiratory mask looking outside from home window during quarantinePredrag Popovski/Getty Images

It could give us a better understanding of our mental health

The stresses of the pandemic have increased anxiety and depression in many individuals and perhaps highlighted the need for greater mental health awareness in our culture, Harry explains. “One of my greatest concerns is that we have not yet begun to see the full impact on recent stressors on our health and that we are not prepared for it,” she adds. “Letting people know that it is OK not to be OK and it is OK to seek help if you need it.” Additionally, Madan says that people who lived with depression before the pandemic may have found themselves feeling more depressed due to social isolation and lockdown. “Mental health disorders are often a result of a combination of factors like our genes and life circumstances,” she explains. “While increasing unemployment and poverty have triggered depression and anxiety in some, others see it as a wake-up call to invest in their education and learn to save money so that they are better prepared for the next crisis in their lives, which is inevitable but does not need to be thought of as doomsday.” Also, now that so many people have gotten a small taste at what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression, the stigma surrounding mental health may decrease.

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African-american man cutting bell pepper in kitchenProstock-Studio/Getty Images

It has made us pay attention to what we’re eating

For a lot of people, making their own meals is the norm. But for others, the pandemic was a rude awakening. Sure, delivery was available in some places, but people started getting used to cooking for themselves—a trend that will ideally continue once the pandemic ends. “Good nutrition is essential for both our physical and mental well-being,” Madan explains. “This may have been a wake-up call for many about what they have been putting into their bodies. When people cook their own food, they become aware of what goes into the meals they eat; this awareness usually propels people to be more mindful of choosing healthy meal options and eating at regular intervals—avoiding binge eating or yo-yo dieting.”

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Close-up of five women stacking their handsWestend61/Getty Images

It has given us a better understanding of solidarity

With so much hardship around the world this year, it has made us think more about others around the country and the world who are also struggling. “As the impact of the coronavirus continues to unfurl, there is one silver lining to behold: a resurgence—a groundswell really—of a long-cherished but lately battered ethical ideal: solidarity,” Eckenwiler explains. “Solidarity has been defined as recognizing vulnerability among others with whom we see some similarity—such as the risk of infection, illness, and death—and taking responsive action at some cost or risk to oneself in concert with others…For at its core is a view of people as relational: we are individuals, yet we cannot exist, much less flourish, without relying on collective actions. Recognizing shared vulnerabilities and taking action in response—from wearing masks to isolating at home—are embodied enactments of the common-sense notion that ‘we are all in this together.'” So how has COVID-19 stacked up against other pandemics in history? Here are 13 ways it’s different.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.