An implausible plot with dystopian undertones, characterized by sweeping narratives and poorly drawn characters. That would have been my response if the script of 2020 had landed on my desk a year ago.

But there we have it. The year that gave birth to the inconceivable is coming to an end and we have no choice but to try to make sense of it. 

The scale of suffering has yet to be sufficiently represented. For months, news bulletins opening with phrases like “another grim milestone” were followed by the number of lives the virus had claimed on any one particular day. 

Comparisons were employed in the hope of aiding comprehension. More than twice as many American deaths as in World War I. One hundred times more than on Sept. 11. And six times as many as the Vietnam War.

Most of us still can’t quite get our heads around it.

Was it all real?

So many things that did not seem possible happened. The global economy shut down and the myth of endless productivity was quashed. Carbon emissions plummeted. Tufts of grass poked through the pavement of main thoroughfares. Foxes near cities became bolder.

DW's Kate Ferguson

DW’s Kate Ferguson

Kitchens became offices. Boomers embraced Zoom. My husband’s company organized an online crafts class. He made a robin out of wool.

Misinformation, aided by social media, spread as rapidly as the virus did. Nurses told stories about patients using their dying breaths to deny the existence of COVID-19.

Some of the world’s most powerful people fell ill: Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Macron. Female leadership was lauded: Ardern, Merkel, Tsai, Marin. 

Science triumphed. Medical advisers became household names. The story of the immigrant couple Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, whose work on messenger RNA paved the way for the development of a life-saving vaccine, traveled around the world. 

So too did the harried faces of health care workers. The blotchy outlines of their protective gear imprinted into the skin around their eyes and nose. The images made to be retweeted with messages appealing to our better natures: Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay at home.

Other workers also ascended into public consciousness: supermarket cashiers, cleaners, bus drivers and logistics workers now perform tasks deemed to be essential.

Zooming into 2021 with regret?

Democracy became an evermore fragile thing. At the beginning of the pandemic, the US president falsely claimed the virus was going away. By the end of the year, after losing an election, he falsely claimed that he wasn’t going away. 

As his power waned, Twitter, the platform that for the past four years had allowed his messages to go unchecked, began to attach labels to his proclamations. “This claim about election fraud is disputed,” they read, the passive voice a continued embodiment of Big Tech’s struggle to define its role in an ever-evolving global information war.

The arrogance of the West was expressed in faintly disguised surprise that other parts of the world had done a better job of containing the virus. Early, naive debates about the effectiveness of masks soon morphed into laws requiring their use. 

The hardship has, of course, been unequal. Some have been pushed to the brink of starvation. Others have suffered minor inconveniences, like Zoom fatigue and holiday postponement.

But for anyone who has lost a loved one to the coronavirus, the grief of 2020 cannot be rewritten.