Human Writes: Covid-19 lessons from 2020

A nurse in blue personal protective equipment in a Covid-19 ward in the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital in April. Nursing care can be the factor that clinches survival of Covid-19 yet nurses are underpaid, thus the global nursing shortage crisis. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

As the door closes on 2020, many people are breathing a sigh of relief. There are jokes going around like this one: If historians made a film about 2020, it would be a nightmare.

This year did bring much misery and tragedy, not least 1.7 million deaths from Covid-19. Many more are struggling to survive. Over 200 million could fall into extreme poverty due to the pandemic, the United Nations has said.

And yet, this crazy year has left us with some life lessons.

Life is unpredictable. The pandemic forced change on us, but that’s life – something just appears out of the blue and yanks the rug from under your feet. Change is a constant. Look how life has changed since your grandparents’ time. It took just one decade for everyone to get addicted to mobile phones. Now, Covid-19 is accelerating changes in the workplace and in digitalisation. Stay prepared for change.

Don’t take anything for granted. This year, we were forced us to give up lots of things, like parties and gatherings and even going to school or work. We gave up our freedom to go where we want when we want. Don’t underestimate the value of many simple things.

Be grateful. Even for small mercies. In a world of so much bad news, it helps to focus on the good stuff. I’m grateful for my family and the closeness we have. I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, a body that works well and readers like you who give me your time. Gratefulness has been tied to happiness. So stay grateful.

Live with less. This year, we had to live with a little less. We should all buy less, travel less, do with less for the planet’s sake. Companies learnt they can do just fine without those business trips. During lockdown, the fashion industry looked ridiculous. This is an industry of immense waste – some 300,000 tonnes of clothes go to landfills or get incinerated in a year. We need a wake-up call on such excesses.

Essential workers deserve more. The frontliners in this war against a virus – essential workers such as nurses, supermarket staff and delivery workers – are undervalued. Nursing care can be the factor that clinches survival of Covid-19. Nurses, like teachers, are underpaid, thus the global nursing shortage crisis. Ironically, 2020 was the Year of the Nurse. So thanks to all nurses. But what they really need is more pay not praise.

Leadership counts. This year, we saw how good governance could control the spread of the pandemic. We also saw abysmal leaders caused chaos, strife and spiralling Covid-19 cases. Disgustingly, we also saw politicians flout rules that everyone else had to follow. Leaders must be more accountable. And it’s our job to make them so.

Respect nature and trust science. We like to think we’ve conquered nature – we can fly to the moon and genetically alter life – but nature humbled us in 2020. Nature always has the trump card. Remember, despite the efforts of many from the time of Gilgamesh, we cannot escape death. The laws of nature apply.

In this post-truth world there’s plenty of fake news about Covid-19. Opinion or emotion should not lead us. Science should. We should study the science so it drives policy and decision-making. It’s science that will save us.

Human beings are intrinsically social beings. Our evolution and language grew out of social cooperation. That was how homo sapiens survived and thrived millions of years ago. We are deeply social. That’s why social distancing and isolation has felt so hard. Now we have an epidemic of loneliness.

We also have an epidemic of depression, afflicting a quarter of a billion people. I believe for the survival of humankind on earth, we must develop greater social consciousness and return to what has worked for human evolution: social cooperation.

Think global, act local. We need local action to address global problems, both for Covid-19 and for the environment and climate. The complete solutions are complex, but everyone should do their part to stop the virus spreading and reduce carbon emissions. Viruses can spread around the planet in days. But if we know what to do to fight the pandemic or heal the planet, then why are we not doing it? That, my friend, is my question to you.

What matters most needs our focus. The pandemic has pushed us to think about what really matters. Our health matters. One little cough these days and people around you flee in alarm. Loved ones matter. Those closest to you deserve your attention. And our dreams matter. The big goals should have priority. Covid-19 forced us to slow down and refocus. Now, as we approach 2021, we should focus on what is worth living for in life.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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