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As we flip the calendar to 2021, there’s really no debate: 2020 stank.

But there was a lot to learn. And reasons for hope.

There’s a new administration on its way to Washington D.C. and Americans are already being vaccinated against COVID-19. Stimulus checks are landing in bank accounts (even if many argue they’re too small). Fewer cars are on the highway and we’ve learned some things formerly burdensome, like medical appointments, can reliably happen from home.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said despite the pandemic’s toll, there are reasons to believe 2020 may have helped pave a smoother road to the future.

“Taking the long view, I’m very optimistic,” said Swartzberg. “I think we’ve learned a tremendous amount, not only in how to tackle this virus, but how to do so in the fields of diagnostic testing and therapeutics. We’ve made tremendous progress in the way we vaccinate people. It’s nothing short of miraculous. We’ve never done anything on the magnitude of what we’re doing now.”

“We’ve learned the lesson of underfunding public health for decades,” Swartzberg said. “Americans have also learned what bad government can do in the face of a pandemic. It’s been horrific. But I would give the government credit for investing heavily in the vaccine effort. It’s the one thing the Trump administration did right.”

Boarded-up shops line San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf during November. Experts say business closures brought about by lockdowns during the pandemic helped expose the economic plight of many low-wage occupations. (Photo by Steve Disenhof/ProBonoPhoto)

A test case for the future

Swartzberg said with human population pushing geographic boundaries, and travel becoming faster and easier, we’ll likely see public health crises more frequently. Despite crushing consequences, if nothing else, 2020 better prepared us for the future.

“We saw cooperation among scientists with this pandemic like I’ve never seen in all my decades teaching,” he said. “It was wonderful. It’s broken down a lot of barriers. The government also learned a major lesson about non-polarization of key government agencies, like the CDC. It’s going to take a lot of repair, but I think we’ll make some gradual improvement. And we’ve learned the message has to be consistent and scientifically based. It’s been 100 years since a public health disaster like this. We have to learn from history while moving forward.”

East Bay Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, can relate. His year included a five-week stay in the intensive care unit of a Washington D.C. hospital after a March running accident left him with life-threatening injuries.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the way we vaccinate people. It’s nothing short of miraculous. We’ve never done anything on the magnitude of what we’re doing now.”

Dr. John Swartzberg, UC Berkeley

“For me, this very difficult year began with a fight for my life and has ended with a return to health,” DeSaulnier said. “For this, I am filled with gratitude. My heart goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one during this pandemic, and to those who are fighting for their lives and on the frontline.”

“I hope a year from now we are back to a new normal and past this trying time in our history,” DeSaulnier said. “We should all be filled with gratitude for this great gift of life and for being an American citizen, even for all its challenges this year.”

One of the biggest challenges for the U.S. was coming to grips with racism, even in the suburbs. Summer protests over police misconduct and social justice spilled into areas east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk said 2020 brought new awareness to residents in his city.

“That’s something we can look at in a positive direction,” Wilk said. “Suddenly it’s in Walnut Creek. It does shake people up. There were discussions that had to happen, discussions we probably hadn’t had before. I never had discussions with co-workers about what it’s like to be Black. I hadn’t talked about what it’s like to be Jewish. There’s just not been enough understanding of where the other side is coming from.

“People are now asking ‘Why are people looking at things in this way?’”

Economic inadequacies exposed

UC Berkeley economist Sylvia A. Allegretto said 2020 proved how fragile our economy is and how obvious change is necessary.

“It became all too obvious that our health systems and healthcare coverage are completely inadequate,” said Allegretto, the co-chair of the university’s Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics. “Universal healthcare should not be debatable at this point — nor higher wages for our lowest paid workers and time off as mandatory. It certainly became clear who is important to our everyday lives and in a crisis.

“Low wage workers, many people of color, are playing such a huge role and have been critical since day one of the pandemic — many without healthcare or are woefully under insured,” she said. “Many with no paid time off or sick leave. Can anybody really argue against a $15 minimum wage now?”

Allegretto said her “optimism is with the incoming Biden-Harris administration.”

“But we are only entering the worst of this pandemic to this point. I think the new administration has already shown leadership and direction and defined a few goals.”

Stanford Medical School Professor Greg Hammer said doctors learned a tremendous amount going through the country’s worst health crisis in more than a century.

“I’m an optimist. We’ve learned we have the capacity to gear up to take care a great number of patients,” said Hammer, the author of “Gain Without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Health Care Professionals.” “We’ve learned a lot about the multi-discipline effort necessary. The good news is the health care system can ramp up; the world is capable of coming together and meeting the challenge.”

Healthy outlook

Hammer said people’s habits will change. He mentioned advances in telehealth, creating space for doctors to expand facilities and relieving the burden of so many patients sitting together in waiting rooms, and people will be more aware of spreading germs.

“There will be better emergency preparedness,” he said. “In the immediate wake of this, people in health care will be able to respond much more rapidly.”

Congressman Eric Swalwell, D-Livermore, said it is those health workers that give him hope for the future.

“This was a difficult, tragic year for so many people in our community,” said Swalwell, who graduated from Dublin High School in 1999. “But what makes me optimistic about the future is that it’s clearer than ever that heroes walk among us. I’m deeply moved by the doctors and nurses, the first responders, the teachers, and all the frontline workers who have selflessly strived to ensure the rest of us can survive. And the nonprofits and their volunteers who are striving to help our neediest neighbors are living testament to humanity’s goodness.”

“Hard as 2020 has been, it exposed role models all around us who inspire us to be better people.”