The Story of 2020, Part One

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Note: A version of the following appeared previously in an email I sent to my congregation this past summer.

How will you tell the story of this year? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Does your Christian faith influence how you tell the story? Here’s my first attempt:

We knew 2020 would have some drama to it. After all, it was an election year, but we had no idea what was coming. Early on there were some rumblings out of Wuhan, China about a new (“novel”) virus. It was called SARS-CoV-2 because of its similarity to the virus that caused SARS in 2003. [1] The disease it causes has been called Covid-19: “‘co’ for corona, ‘vi’ for virus, ‘d’ for disease, and ‘19’ for the year it appeared.” [2] It’s a little easier just to call it the coronavirus. At the end of January, travel from China was restricted to The United States because of it.

In the middle of February, Nancy and I traveled to California to work with some friends at a conference. At the event, we learned one of the speakers had cancelled. He was an older gentleman and his doctor told him not to travel because of the coronavirus. Then one of the support staff for the conference caught the flu and was banished to her hotel room. When I saw her a couple of days later, I remember feeling anxious about being near her. And then there was the flight home. I thought: “Is this a good idea?”

In March, we watched this novel coronavirus hit the country of Italy hard. The death toll was greater than in China and hospitals were overwhelmed. And then here in the States, as a country, as a state, as a church, we made changes to how we would live and move in the world. We wanted to flatten the curve. We refer to “lockdowns” in this country, but they were nothing like the lockdowns in China and Italy.

As a church, we stopped meeting, physically, but then someone had the idea of gathering online, which we began doing in April and have done ever since (with a few joyous experiments with drive-in church sprinkled in). As of July 5, we have begun a hybrid of meeting in our building, outside or in cars, and online on Sunday mornings at 11:00 am.

Normally, as Americans we have this ability to rally around each other. I remember when President Reagan was shot in 1981. I was a senior in my journalism classroom at San Pedro High School as we stood around the television. The report came out that Mr. Reagan had told the doctor, “I hope you’re a Republican.” The doctor responded, “Today, we’re all Republicans.”

9/11 was the same thing. We were all New Yorker’s. We were all especially aware of our own mortality and fragility and living accordingly.

Something was different with this coronavirus, though. We did hunker down. But then we hoarded. Toilet paper. Cleaning supplies. And then we got angry. Especially online. I suppose we were looking for someone to blame. But it’s hard to know who to blame.

I read a book on Covid-19 (Deborah MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. New York: Hachette Books, 2020.) and the author tells a story that is more complicated than this or that person/country is to blame. It’s probably better to say there’s plenty of blame to go around and the sources for our information share in some of it.

You wouldn’t think a disease like this would be political, but it is. And it has fractured our culture or at least has exposed the fractures.

The problems with this disease begin with the fact that you’re contagious before you’re symptomatic and you may not ever be symptomatic. And while the death rate is relatively low (somewhere between worse than the flu but not as bad as, say, SARS and MERS), it seems to affect different parts of our population differently—older Americans especially hard and young people hardly at all. The worse your economic situation right now, the worse your experience these last five months.

No one has a particularly good solution aside from a vaccine and we’re a ways away from that. Creating a vaccine is a complicated enterprise. It’s a race, but it’s not necessarily a race to be first. Everyone wants to be first, but the first vaccine may not be the best. And a bad vaccine will be worse than no vaccine. It will make the problem worse.

We have learned that an older person with the virus should not be put back into their retirement home. That seems clear. Physical distancing (which sounds a lot better than “social distancing”) and certain types of masks seem to help contain the spread. But the main thing is avoiding close-proximity to others in enclosed spaces over a period of time.

Anyway, this is what we thought this year would be about—dealing with the coronavirus. I mean, there were those murder hornets, [3] but that turned out to be nothing. At least for now. No, we were trying to figure out how to return to anything like normalcy. How do we plan? What is possible? What is safe? How do we balance economic concerns and human safety? There were and are a lot of questions. There’s a lot there to think through.

But then on May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed while in police custody. Like most people, I thought this was horrific. It was wrong. And the arrogance on display in that image of the now former police office with his hands in his pockets while he snuffs out the life of Floyd is staggering.

Even a friend of mine in law enforcement told me this week that he and his colleagues have looked at the video and can’t make sense of the decision-making or the police procedures behind this person who knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. After all, there were four police officers there and the man was handcuffed. What could he do? This death shouldn’t have happened. But it did.

I thought, hoped, we would have an opportunity to discuss issues of race. It is, after all, America’s original sin.

To be continued . . .



[1] Deborah MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. New York: Hachette Books, 2020, pp. ix and xxi.

[2] MacKenzie, p. ix.

[3] I mentioned “murder hornets” to a friend and she wrote back, “Please don’t call the Asian giant hornet a ‘murder hornet.’ That’s offensive!”