What is there to say about 2020?
It's tempting — really tempting — to say let's just shove the year that was down the memory hole.
With any luck, the vaccines that started rolling out in December will provide the decisive blow in our nearly year-long battle with the coronavirus. Economic relief payments targeted toward individuals and small businesses won't erase the pain of the pandemic, but they will hopefully help to ease it. Gov. Kate Brown made a surprise pre-Christmas announcement that could pave the way for students to return to classrooms in Scappoose and St. Helens as soon as February.
Read our Dec. 23, 2020, story on Gov. Kate Brown's announcement easing the way for in-person classes to resume.
One of the most viscerally unpleasant election seasons in generations is now behind us — we hope. Here in Columbia County, new city councilors and a new county commissioner will be sworn in within days. Congress will convene next week to count the electoral votes: 306 for President-elect Joe Biden, 232 for outgoing President Donald Trump, reflecting the will of votes in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Although there's still much that divides us, our elected representatives and senators at least ended 2020 on a relatively high note by finally passing a major coronavirus relief and omnibus funding bill, a gesture of bipartisan cooperation that could maybe, perhaps, hopefully, augur more good-faith negotiations in the New Year.
We also bid adieu to what was certainly not a banner year for government integrity in Columbia County. In 2020, the Spotlight had to fight to obtain public records that cast two county department heads in a poor light. One of them quietly resigned over the summer, weeks before the Spotlight published a two-part special report detailing her clashes with parole and probation officers in her department and interpersonal drama with a circuit court judge. The other was elected to the county commission despite allegations, which he denied, that he used racial slurs in the workplace. We heard perhaps more from people unhappy with the working conditions at the county courthouse in 2020 than in any other year in recent memory.
But tempting though it is to call 2020 an anomaly and move forward with nary another thought, we know it's not that simple.
In the case of the county, sunlight is the best disinfectant. It's a mantra you've read on this page before.
An example: We doubt every reader was satisfied with the conclusion of one of our lead stories in last week's issue, in which the District Attorney's Office chose not to file charges against a St. Helens police officer for punching a female suspect as she was being pressed to the ground. The case raised disturbing questions about how far police are allowed to go when making an arrest.
Read our Dec. 25, 2020, story, on the use-of-force investigation into an August 2020 incident involving St. Helens police.
But we agree with the DA that regardless of what the law says about the permissibility of the officer's actions, the fact that happened — and was recorded by body-worn cameras — in St. Helens suggests that more and better training is needed for our local police. They should be equipped to de-escalate situations and subdue suspects in a less violent manner. The problem, as it is, is now clarion-clear.
And in the case of the election, if we sweep it under the rug without addressing it, we risk 2020 being not some bizarre and unsettling fluke, but a waypoint on the path toward a country that is perhaps irrevocably broken.
For too long, many people have felt powerless in our current politics — overlooked by ruling elites, unable to outbid the special interests that dominate Salem and Washington, D.C., alike. Part of President Trump's popularity has stemmed from the disconnect between the way he speaks and acts and the way in which we're used to politicians speaking and acting, whether for good or ill. But what we should expect is that when the American people vote, the levers of power move accordingly, with the candidates who lose respecting the outcome and the candidates who win being given every chance to succeed.
Many of Trump's supporters like the way in which he "shook up" the state of politics, but where we must draw the line is at democracy itself being shaken apart. Let's set aside our anger and hurt in the New Year and work toward healing and fortifying our democracy, with 2020 as our guide to why it matters so very much.
As for the coronavirus, it will be with us for much, if not all, of 2021. The vaccines give us hope that 2021 is the year we turn the tide and life begins to return to a more recognizable form. We'd all like to go to a football game or a school play or a family reunion in 2021 without fear of the virus. Hopefully we will, but it won't happen automatically, and it won't happen overnight.
There are lessons we should learn from this pandemic.
For one, we now have a much better sense of what parts of society can move into cyberspace, and what parts should not.
Cooperative gaming, whether of the tabletop variety like "Dungeons & Dragons" or video games and apps like "Among Us," might never have been as popular before as it was in 2020, with groups of people from across the country and around the world coming together online. And now surely, many office workers' daily commutes and hours-long meetings now seem quaint when we know we can harness programs like Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom to create virtual workspaces and collaborate outside the office.
On the other side of the coin, 2020 has proven "distance learning" to be a miserable failure. This isn't for any lack of effort, especially on the part of hardworking teachers who have been innovating to keep students engaged and educated. It is simply not realistic to expect virtual lesson plans and homework to take the place of in-person instruction, especially in hands-on settings, and most of all for younger students who need some structure in order to stay on task. There's a reason why smaller class sizes are a perennial ask for teachers in school districts from St. Helens and Scappoose to Xenia and Zionsville. Study after study shows that students benefit from having more individual attention and fewer disruptions to their learning environment. 2020 was full of disruptions, and teachers and parents alike were run off their feet trying to keep up. This model just doesn't work.
For another — and this is important — we should know by now that we have to follow the science, even when it says scary things and we'd really rather ignore it.
We need to wear face masks when we're in public and around other people who aren't part of our household or "bubble," at least while the virus continues to spread unchecked in our community. This isn't very much fun, and it can be rather awkward, but it's telling that in states like Tennessee and South Dakota that have resisted mask mandates, case counts and hospitalizations have exploded, while in neighboring states like Kentucky and Montana that were quick to issue masking orders, the situation is still serious but less dire.
This lesson will be even more important in 2021, as we go on offense against the coronavirus. It's important to get vaccinated as soon as you can. No vaccine is 100% effective, meaning the only way to ensure everyone is safe is to crush viral transmission altogether. On this, too, we must follow the science. While there have been rare reports of anaphylactic reactions in people receiving the vaccine, our doctors know how to treat anaphylaxis, and drugs to counteract it are commonplace. COVID-19 has no known cure, and a percentage of people who become sick with it will suffer serious, sometimes long-lasting complications; of them, a percentage will die. There is no EpiPen to clear up a case of COVID-19.
There's more, of course.
We will need to follow the science to curb the effects of climate change, which is driving increasingly dangerous wildfires in the West, if we don't want the experience of September 2020 to become a regular occurrence. As we wrote at the time, there's no way to be sure the next devastating fire won't happen in Columbia County, where the Highway 30 corridor could easily be cut in two. We should recognize this as an urgent imperative now, because we can't afford to waste more time.
And we should learn from the experience of 2020 that mental health is vital, and people need emotional and psychological support, just as much as they need their teeth cleaned or their blood pressure checked. Isolation is brutally tough on the psyche, and the effects of job loss, missed school and social time, and grief stemming from this pandemic could last well beyond the last lockdown. We will need to be compassionate and intelligent in how we address this trauma, which may be more common than we realize.
It all goes to show that 2020 should be remembered as an important year. We may not have enjoyed it, but we can't go on as though it didn't happen. Something good should come from it, or we risk an even worse year to come.
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