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2020: An unprecedented, unpredictable, and uncertain year

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agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

The clock is eternal with time always on the move. The year 2020 began like any other with the clock ticking from 2019 to 2020 at the midnight. However, there is something unique about the leap year 2020 with the first two digits matching the second two. Lucky are those born or living in 2020 because the last such leap year with repeating digits was 1616 and the next will be 2424. The number 2020 had a cache, was rhythmic to our ears, and as if we were going to be blessed with the 20-20 vision. Who could have imagined that the “unique 2020” would ironically turn into the most “unprecedented, unpredictable, and uncertain 2020” of historic proportions, perhaps not even worth remembering and writing about?

As the world was celebrating the arrival of the New Year in their own way in different time zones, who knew what was brewing inside China, a “closed” country with unambiguous ambitions to rule the world. Then, unexpectedly, the World Health Organization got a wind of the cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan on January 1 while the world was still immersed in welcoming the New Year. Who knew that the little-known coronavirus will create havoc of unprecedented magnitude globally in the months to come; COVID 19 with potentially life-threatening consequences becoming the most common but dreaded phrase in every household? Subsequently, almost everything, every event, and everywhere in 2020 became the dark and stark examples of unpretentious uncertainty and unpredictability. Who knows how historians would characterize the uncharacteristic 2020?

As we are getting closer to the end of the year, we review what makes 2020 unique with many unprecedented happenings with a continuing theme of coronavirus pandemic bringing the world to the knees. The last such pandemic was between 1918 and 1920, a deadly outbreak of influenza infecting over a third of the world’s population and ending the lives of tens of millions of people (est. 20-50 million). A hundred years later, the pandemic, COVID-19, has caused over 60 million confirmed cases (of the nearly 8 billion people globally) and more than 1.4 million deaths according to WHO at the time of writing this piece. These are perhaps modest in straight comparison with the numbers in 1918 but mindboggling considering how far we have come with the huge scientific and technological advances globally. We mostly focus on the U.S. (with an occasional comparison with India), which added political uncertainty and unpredictability to an already unprecedented pandemic.   

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC: Our first “unprecedented” point is the nightmare we have lived through every day fearing infection and facing uncertainty worse than ever before. Just imagine that the United States, the world’s most powerful and developed, and the oldest thriving democracy, has been brought to her knees by this coronavirus. The number of deaths (~ 265,000) and nearing 13 million cases with positive infections are astounding and unprecedented. As a comparison, India, with nearly 3.5 times the population of the U.S., has nearly one-half of U.S. deaths (~135,000) and two-third (~9.2 million) infections. Every other country has suffered from a large number of deaths. 

Thanksgiving in the U.S. (at the end of November) is a traditional day for the families to get together and offer their gratitude for what they have. It is like Diwali and other festivals being celebrated by families in India. This year, the most unexpected action was a strong recommendation to restrict travel and family-together on Thanksgiving Day. There was a suggestion of observing ‘Thanks-giving’ as ‘Thanks-living’ fearing more infections post-Thanksgiving. In contrast, India imposed fewer restrictions and now post-Diwali there is a hike in the number of infections and deaths. The bottomline is that the pandemic still rules the world.

The leadership styles of Modi and Trump certainly contributed to India doing better than the U.S. in the number of deaths and infections. Modi addressed the nation multiple times during the peak months of COVID 19 about the need for sanitization, masking, and social distancing (SMS). He took an unprecedented action of shutting down one of the world’s largest train networks causing unimaginable inconvenience and economical consequences. He led the nation by example and good behavior which, we now know, made the difference. Trump, on the other hand, was slow to impose travel restrictions, never observed and promoted SMS, and in most public appearances he minimized the fatal nature of COVID-19. In fact, the U.S. under his leadership had no comprehensive public health policy; it was rather ridden with politics so much so that the States with leadership from his Republican party cared less about SMS. The coronavirus was politicized to the hilt in the U.S. elections.

While, there are positive and encouraging signals of the vaccines, with efficacy as high as 95%, the pandemic appears to be returning globally with vengeance. What was a wave of infections and death in the spring is now turning into a tsunami? The world at a standstill with complete shutdowns in the Spring paralyzed the economy, education, and employment opportunities to unprecedented levels. Going forward, it is unpredictable if the resurgence of COVID 19 will cause the winters even darker with people already experiencing fatigue, isolation, and fear of the uncertainty.

THE ELECTIONS: India’s election in the State of Bihar led to the incumbent party leadership being reelected. However, the U.S. Presidential election between incumbent Trump and former Vice President Biden, the most contentious in recent history, led to the defeat of the incumbent. What made this election unprecedented? Both candidates were older than any of the previous contenders for the White House; attracted the highest number of voters including the absentee ballots than ever before and fought a bitter fight in their own style. Some voted for the better of the two evils while others were simply seeking “change” from Trump’s legacy of total lack of decency, diplomacy, and direction for the country. Yet there was another group who would swear for and support Trump for his outspoken politics against issues such as immigration, environment, and the promise of making America great again at the expense of losing long term friends and global alliances.

Trump’s allegations of totally unfounded conspiracy and election rigging were part of his campaign style. He was totally consumed with electioneering but disengaged with the pandemic as a major public health issue for the U.S. and the world.  While the deaths and infections kept mounting, Trump was in total denial as if the coronavirus cares about his win or defeat. He refused to use a mask himself and held election rallies without the mask and social distance. In fact, Trump had no shame in ridiculing the essential safety measures of social distancing and face masks used by his rival, Biden, in election rallies. President’s messaging was unprecedented in failing to acknowledge and express sympathies for thousands of families who lost their loved ones. It is conceivable that some people voted against Trump because of his total lack of empathy for the dead due to coronavirus while others gave sympathy vote for Trump following his own infection.

The only silver lining in the months leading to the election was Trump’s focus on the development of vaccines to fight the evil coronavirus. While it was politically motivated to win the election, he committed Federal resources and kept the pressure for the “good” news of vaccine development with lightning speed. Trump unhesitatingly defied science and badmouthed scientists if it served his political ideology and hope for the return to the White House for the second term. In retrospect, Trump’s failed leadership in acknowledging the deadly nature of the invisible corona and claiming it “going away” may also have led to his defeat at the polls.

We are thankful for the vaccine development at an unprecedented speed bringing hope. However, unfortunate for Trump politics that the announcement came only after he lost the bid for the second term. The election was unprecedented in that over 153 million voters took part demonstrating an extraordinary level of engagement. While this reaffirms the strong American democracy, it also manifests an unprecedented division among people. Some of the polarization is understandably due to the political ideologies but the more damaging may be the people who resonated with Trump’s style, persona, temper, tone, and tenor. Only time will tell how well and how soon those people will heal from the deep wounds in their minds.  Historians and researchers will be busy for years to analyze the unprecedented experiences of the Presidential election during a pandemic.  

POST-ELECTION SAGA: The state of Bihar in India already has the Chief Minister back to work within days after the election results. But, the U.S. is in a long drawn political and legal battleground because President Trump has not conceded more than 3 weeks since the polls. It is just another example of unprecedented 2020. Trump’s campaign challenged election outcome in dozens of cities claiming fraud and irregularities but faced an unprecedented number of courts denying such claims for the lack of evidence. For example, Pennsylvania’s state and federal judges swiftly and pointedly rejected the Trump legal team’s arguments – at times eviscerating it for not presenting facts to back up the allegations calling it “unprecedented” and pointing out,  “The Campaign’s claims have no merit.”

Trump created another unprecedented challenge by not allowing the Federal resources for the transition team and the security briefings to President-elect Biden. It was a move to undermine democracy and risking national security. Finally, more than three weeks later, Trump signed off on both counts but still not conceded. Equally unprecedented and a move to undermine democracy is that the Republican leadership in the House and Senate turned their blind eye the other way. They should have recognized the legitimate win of President-elect Biden but they have not done it.

WHAT NEXT? The election is over; the vaccines are in the final stages of approval, and Biden’s transition team is finally at work. The uncertainty of election outcome created by Trump’s uncanny lack of wisdom is now a certainly of Biden taking oath on January 20, 2021. Trump’s legacy and his style of governance with Twitter will soon become extinct, and with the clock ticking without interruption, we will be welcoming 2021 in about a month.  With all that being the signs of hope, we can neither ignore the despair of 2020 nor wipe it from our memories. What we can agree on is that 2020 has been a year of unprecedented uncertainties with coronavirus not differentiating who and where we are, and unpredictable trials and tribulations on daily basis. However, we cannot let our guards down in 2021 until everyone gets vaccinated to develop herd immunity globally.

Biden as President will face enormous challenges such as people’s mental, physical, and economic wellbeing, small businesses collapsing, and the stimulus bill to recover the economic challenges. He must work harder to unify the divided country and offer hope while COVID is still raging. The logistics of vaccine distribution and vaccination will be enormous tasks from day one. It appears that while Trump is still the President, he is doing nothing in the interest of the nation. He has spent more time on the golf course and maneuvering the unfounded legal fights than governing and policy issues facing the nation.

The year 2021 awaits all world leaders working diligently to keep China under check against viruses and pandemics as well as thwart China’s ill-gotten dream of becoming a threat to democracy globally. A strong India-U.S. alliance and global partnerships are strategically important for geopolitical reasons, rebuilding devastated economies and restoring certainty and predictability caused by COVID-19. We will be fortunate if most people are vaccinated by the end of 2021 and the world returns to the “new normal” way of life which everyone is talking about.

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agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

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