Bye Bye 2020 and Thanks for all the Lessons!

What a completely crazy year 2020 has been. Not just crazy, but also deeply challenging and painful for many people.

On an individual human and family level the answer to what we need now is fairly easy: especially those that have lost loved ones, suffered medically, lost employment, had to work at home in difficult circumstances, or not been able to travel and see loved ones. “Less of that” and back to some of the comfort and stability we had before the virus arrived would be welcome for pretty much everyone! The status quo pre-virus was also not that great for many, however.

Even though there are many things about 2020 that would be best forgotten at the bottom of a New Year’s Eve wine glass, at a society level there are a few things lessons the year taught us that perhaps we’ll remember and do something about in the years ahead:

  • Togetherness helps us all: this year saw so many instances of people helping each other through crisis after crisis it’s hard to remember them all. From people playing music from their balconies, starting free delivery services, and of course doctors and nurses fighting the virus with very little equipment. Hopefully, this spirit of collaboration will continue as we pick up the pieces.
  • Science came to the fore: the incredible speed with which testing and then subsequently vaccines became possible is a huge testament to the scientists able to make these breakthroughs. Hopefully, these breakthroughs will help us remember that we need to listen to scientists when they have compelling evidence of threats (and solutions).
  • Less pollution, more conservation: during the lockdowns early in the year, nature grew wild, animals foraged more freely and air pollution dropped. Economies quickly picked up the slack again but … hopefully the memory of this time might encourage us to work harder to reduce our impact on the planet.
  • Less consumerism?: 2020 brought a global shock to consumer purchasing – out with travel, out with eating out, less spending overall, more saving, and all in on essentials for the new reality such as digital video conferencing of home gym equipment. Some of these purchasing decisions will flow back the other way, but after a shock like this perhaps there is a chance we’ll realize that we don’t necessarily need all those pairs of shoes or fancy suits (not the suit trousers anyway!).
  • Re-thinking work?: I feel incredibly lucky that the work I do can be done remotely from almost anywhere in the world. This was not true for many people and it’s been an extremely difficult year as a result. With luck some of the transformations during the year will make it easier for more roles to “go remote” and we’ll get better at it as a society. This still won’t apply to all people, but by doing this hopefully, we can take the pressure off our commutes and travel as well as getting creative on how to properly support people in roles that do in-person presence.
  • Less travel and more local exploration: I can’t hide from the fact that I love travel and sorely missed it during this lockdown year. I suspect I got to fly more than most and even that felt limited. No doubt it will take a long time for global travel to recover. One of the big upsides has been discovering in-country and internal travel more. I got so much more familiar with Barcelona when I was there during lockdown and after spending a month in Prague I feel like I know the city much better than I did before. Now all we need is the bars, restaurants, and museums back, perhaps the total number of Airmiles will go down but enjoyment will go up.

Each of these changes provides opportunities to NOT go back to the status quo and make things better.

The biggest lesson of all though is that our economies are too tightly optimized for growth. Our economies and societies in most of the world were too fragile to deal with a shock like the Coronavirus. In some ways, this is the lesson I think ties all of the others and the story of the year together.

Whole sectors have been at a near standstill as behavior patterns necessarily changed, large groups of people suddenly found themselves without work or financial support. Especially in countries like the United States, with poor social safety nets, this created a tragic tension between health and the need to try to operate the economy. This in turn no doubt contributing to 100’s of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

It’s not a huge surprise that countries with more socialized care have in general done much better in keeping virus casualties down as well as looking after people in desperate situations. I strongly suspect they will also be the most effective at long term recovery.

In many ways, it looks like we may have a relatively lucky escape. If the virus has been just a bit faster at spreading, had higher mortality, and been more resistant to testing/treatment, then the number of deaths could have been orders of magnitude higher. The economic devastation could also have been far higher. It’s critical that we think through how to use what we learned to make society more robust against these types of shocks:

  • Try to make economies less tightly coupled
  • Ensure better safety nets for those caught out by such major shifts
  • Chase growth a little less and try to ensure we’re prepared for more unexpected scenarios
  • Double down on science to understand more of the building blocks we’ll need to solve future crises
  • Don’t lose the spirit of collaboration we’ve learned in the last 9-12 months, being more connected is the basis for reacting quickly when something new does go wrong

I wrote about a few of these things in June but they seem more in focus now. Here’s hoping that 2021 is kinder and gentler so that we get the chance to solve some of these bigger challenges and are in better shape for future surprises!

It would be a shame if we missed out on these lessons. It’s a good time to apply some Antifragile thinking.

Happy New Year!

Meme image made using Imgflip.

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