December 28, 2020 8:00 am

Members of the Iowa Black Caucus celebrate approval of legislation addressing racial injustice by police. From left are Reps. Ruth Ann Gaines, Ross Wilburn, Ako Abdul-Samad, Ras Smith and Phyllis Thede. (Photo courtesy of Iowa House Democrats)

During a New Year’s Eve gathering last year, my friends and I merrily shredded a 2019 calendar and said good riddance. We had every reason to expect that 2020 would be a time of renewal for ourselves and our country.

This year, if we get together for New Year’s, it will likely be via a computer screen. We’ve all been through a lot in a year. One of our dear friends battled back from a life-threatening (non-COVID) illness, and has to be extra careful about exposure to COVID-19. Two other friends recently lost their mothers. We’ve missed birthdays and holidays with our families. We all need a hug.

If there’s champagne, we won’t toast the new year without remembering that more than 332,000 Americans and more than 3,700 of our fellow Iowans have died of COVID-19. Far too many of those deaths could have been avoided, if we as a society had been a little less selfish. Along with the loss of life, we experienced a loss of faith and trust in each other during a time when we should have found a unity of purpose.

And yet, amid all the fear, sorrow, strife and death of 2020, some amazing things happened. Sometimes, they were like the proverbial pony in a barn full of manure: We had to dig for it. Here are five ways 2020 didn’t totally suck:

Essential workers

A sign reading “Heroes work here” is shown outside MountainView Hospital in Las Vegas April 2, 2020. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

This was a mixed blessing, like many of the positive developments of 2021. But the public recognition of and appreciation for the essential workers among us, especially during the early stages of the pandemic, is something we should not overlook.

While some were too busy hoarding toilet paper or protesting mask-wearing to notice, many of us at least acknowledged that we’d all be in much worse shape without grocery store clerks, food processors, utility workers, first responders, health care professionals and staff, teachers, child care operators and many others.

These folks kept our society from completely breaking down by continuing to work, even at risk to themselves and their families.

In 2021, part of that recognition and appreciation will take the form of early vaccination. But, as I’ve noted in the past, we should also extend gratitude by working for public policies (such as paid sick leave and better workplace safety enforcement) that support these workers.

Police reform

Black Lives Matter protesters went to the Iowa Capitol to watch Gov. Kim Reynolds sign a bipartisan police reform bill into law. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers was tragic in a multitude of ways. The protests that followed, some of them engulfed by violence and property damage, left scars in many cities.

But in some places, the public demonstrations inspired soul-searching and new civic engagement against racism. Hundreds of thousands of people pressed for change from every level of government from city councils to Congress.

In Iowa, the Legislature unanimously approved admittedly modest police reform legislation aimed at making it easier to fire officers with a history of serious misconduct and reinforcing training requirements aimed neutralizing biases and reducing the need for force.

More challenging proposals are in the works for 2021, including solid recommendations from a governor’s task force to address racial profiling.  This is work that we must not leave behind with the bad memories of 2020.

Environment and outdoor recreation

The Mississippi River, shown here in Dubuque, is among Iowa waterways that could receive less pollution if the state approves new water quality initiatives. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The coronavirus may have distracted us from that other existential threat, climate change. COVID-related lockdowns did enormous damage to our economy. But they also gave us a real-time demonstration of how fast our environment can rebound when we stop spewing carbons into the atmosphere.

Those who questioned whether changing human habits can make a difference can stop asking. And when our gyms, organized sports, movie theaters and other forms of indoor recreation were off limits, we rediscovered the outdoors. In Iowa, hunting and fishing licenses set records and park and campground usage soared.

There’s reason to hope that we’ll remember these experiences in 2021 and challenge ourselves to develop and support public policies to clean up our water, our air and our planet without having to shut down our economy.

Voter turnout

Voters stretch a block down Court Avenue around the corner from the Polk County Election Office on Oct. 30, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Our democratic republic has been severely tested and there are still many challenges ahead. We remain polarized, shackled by a political system that punishes compromise and conscience and rewards stalemate and sociopathy.

The pearl at the bottom of the swine trough was the swell of voter participation in the elections despite the pandemic. In Iowa, voters cast ballots in record numbers, including a new high in voting by mail.

We have hard labor ahead to fix many aspects of our political system. We have reason to hope that voter apathy will not be one of them.

COVID-19 vaccine

Yana Zemkova, an internal medicine doctor at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, received one of the first COVID-19 vaccines distributed in Iowa on Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo provided by University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics)

We paid a high price in lives and misery for the mistrust of science that has taken root in some segments of our society. While we’re still in early days, any hope we feel headed into 2021 is largely due to the herculean feat to develop and deploy a COVID-19 vaccine.

Scientists accomplished in less than a year what typically takes a decade to get these drugs to the public. It represents a renewal of faith in human ingenuity and our ability to come together to solve problems. It also expands the limits of our imagination about what is possible if we focus our efforts. I can’t wait to see how science will save us in 2021.

Shredding a calendar doesn’t seem adequate to banish 2020. Maybe this year, we’ll have to drive a wooden stake through the pages, shoot it with silver bullets, run over it with a locomotive, light it on fire, douse the ashes with holy water and bury the whole stinking mess in a concrete bunker.

But let’s do that with gratitude for the parts of 2020 that may actually help renew us. And let’s raise a toast to the hope for a 2021 that doesn’t suck at all.

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