I lived through the Troubles in the North, I lived through the AIDS crisis, I lived through 9/11 and its aftermath in New York City, and I've endured hold-ups, hurricanes, blackouts, and financial crashes

But 2020, the year of Covid-19, felt more threatening than all of them to me, more irredeemably dark than almost every other calamity or crisis I have lived through.

In New York, I live close to the Covid-19 epicenter. That meant that night and day for a month and a half in April and May I woke to the sound of ambulance sirens and I fell asleep to their sound too. 

It felt like our lives had become a dystopian Cormac McCarthy novel. I wondered about every poor soul in every ambulance, who was praying for them at that moment. For weeks it seemed that the only vehicles on the roads belong to emergency services.

The sense of crisis and collapse was citywide, friends I knew in healthcare tended to the sick and dying, and many of them then contracted the virus themselves. Then the freezer trucks started setting up outside the hospitals.

A relatively empty Times Square in New York City. (Getty Images)

A relatively empty Times Square in New York City. (Getty Images)

At home, we gave our weekly groceries a Silkwood wash. We didn't know in March or April how dangerous they might potentially be. Everything seemed to have the potential to kill you.

On TV, the bumptious president Trump kept telling the wider nation that it would all soon disappear. It would disappear like a miracle he said. But in New York we knew that was risible bullshit. You only had to listen to the sirens passing by at all hours.

It was a season of horror. Some people I loved did not survive it. We started attending Irish wakes on Zoom. It seemed especially cruel to put a laptop camera between the mourners and the deceased. It could feel like we were too lazy to attend the funerals, not that we were too afraid. The Irish are social and they mark their joys and griefs socially, so the isolating cruelty of this pandemic burned us deep.

And what did we learn? What were some of the lessons of this ghastly year? 

The first thing I learned is that not everyone is willing to make the sacrifices that a pandemic asks of them. Many citizens simply refused to wear a mask in public or show concern for what their choices might mean for someone else.

Covid-19 unmasked the selfish neighbors who give no thought to anyone but themselves, in an unanticipated public service that will be remembered, I assure you, for years to come.

Another unasked for service it has provided is to highlight the weaknesses in our national healthcare. Too many people still don't have health care, or have enough of it. Hospitals were quickly stretched to the breaking point and medical supplies vanished as though this were a developing economy rather than the richest nation on earth.

Covid-19 has also shown us that our media now plays to two separate audiences, which means two separate nations. This lamentable separation will continue to have dire and far-reaching consequences for our national unity, our sense of purpose, and even our understanding of reality.

A Black Lives Matters demonstration in New York City on June 4, 2020. (Getty Images)

A Black Lives Matters demonstration in New York City on June 4, 2020. (Getty Images)

Finally, many observers are hoping for a return to normality, but normality is no longer on the menu. As the Black Lives Matter protests reminded us all summer long, old injustices like the systemic mistreatment of minorities will no longer be tolerated in this new nation, and protestors of every background and race came out in force in the middle of a pandemic to say so.

So the world we eventually return to isn't going to look like this one, nor will its politics. Those out of touch Republican mandarins in Washington still somehow think a lousy $600 is a sufficient bone to throw after almost a year of national collapse and privation, signaling to voters how little they think of us. The epic tax cut they provided to their rich paymasters in the same bill was not overlooked. 

The unequal state of our economy was already teetering on a dangerous precipice before the pandemic hit, with the gulf between the superrich and the rest widening as never before in the nation's history, but as wages stagnated as expenses soared the true scale of how bad things have gotten since the 1970s was revealed to us and we had nothing to do but sit and reflect on the personal cost of it.

Fear and privation have always been used to keep us in our place, but the pandemic has shown us that fear and privation are ever-present anyway and they should not be of themselves an excuse not to take action. I've called 2020 the year of the great unmasking, it's been a year where all the illusions that we surrounded ourselves with collapsed and afforded a good hard look at where we really are and who we really are to each other.

I don't think people have grasped how much social, economic, and political change will have had its origin in the long months this year when we hid at home, forced to consider where we were and where we're going. Sometime this year the path ahead changed and the world we return to will not look like the one we left behind.

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