2020 hasn’t been the best of years.
There’s little need to expound on the things that went wrong over the last year: a coronavirus pandemic that has killed 1.7 million people globally, infected 80 million, caused severe financial hardships for many and upended daily life for everyone in innumerable ways. Racial unrest that reopened old wounds and at times spilled over into violence. American political animosity that surpassed “uncivil” and moved on to “nasty.” Wildfires, earthquakes and windstorms, too, inflicted damage.
But what may have been missed amid the avalanche of bad news is the steady flow of good news that accompanied it. While it’s true that denying the hard realities of 2020 is no virtue, ignoring the gentler truths isn’t, either. In fact, a mindset that focuses on the positive can have great benefits for those facing hardships. Author Viktor Frankl, after surviving the Holocaust, penned these words:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
To that end, millions of people around the world viewed a November message from President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who asked them to spend the next week focusing on gratitude for the good things in their lives.
“Over my nine-and-a-half decades of life, I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems,” he said.
For the next week, social media was flooded by the hashtag #GiveThanks as people of all faiths and no faith joined the movement and reaped the benefits of it. One participant posted: “This past week was by far the best week of the year. I feel so much peace and hope and joy. It’s like my brain has been reset to see the good again.”
The bad things that happened this year are real and deserve a fair share of our attention. But the good things are equally real and deserve our contemplation, too. Here are eight of them.
A flood of help
When the coronavirus pandemic reached America’s shores and it abruptly became clear that serious measures would be needed to address it, many who were previously in good financial condition suddenly found themselves adrift.
Hours were cut, layoffs were instituted, small businesses and restaurants were forced to shut down and, later, install plexiglass barriers, reduce capacity in their buildings and invest in vigorous sanitizing procedures in order to reopen. To protect their health, many customers stopped patronizing businesses that were not strictly necessary; the entertainment and hospitality industries were particularly hard-hit.
But those suffering financial hardship were not left alone. Help came from many quarters — friends, families, charities, churches and government agencies.
In the face of dramatically more families in need, food banks rose to the challenge, ramping up distribution thanks to generous donations from businesses, churches and individuals, as well as extra volunteers eager to help.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported that its far-flung efforts to help America’s food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic became the biggest humanitarian project in its history. And Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City distributed 4,000 boxes of food during the year.
Creative solutions to new problems were instituted: the Farmers Feeding Utah campaign was created to buy from farmers whose products were going to waste due to disruptions in the food supply chain, and then give the food to those in need, including the Navajo Nation and hundreds of families in west Salt Lake City and Cache County.
Nonprofits weren’t the only ones pitching in. There’s an old saw that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But government action provided much-needed assistance during the pandemic, sending stimulus checks to American households in the spring, with a second round on its way.
The Paycheck Protection Program helped distressed businesses continue to pay their employees. Utah alone paid out more than a billion dollars in unemployment benefits. And emergency funds helped struggling workers pay their rent, as moratoriums were placed on evictions for nonpayment due to COVID-19 hardship.
Significantly, Operation Warp Speed provided billions of dollars in government funding to support research companies in the development and mass production of COVID-19 vaccines (more on that later).
An outpouring of generosity from entertainers
Lockdowns instituted in the spring, just as the pandemic was gaining steam, were a blow to American morale. People accustomed to moving around freely and enjoying regular social activities with friends and family found themselves feeling like prisoners in their homes.
But many in the entertainment industry — who themselves faced financial uncertainty amid a slew of canceled performances and closed venues — decided to share their talents virtually — for free.
Andrew Lloyd Webber began streaming his hit Broadway shows online and took to the piano himself to play “Any Dream Will Do,” getting people around the world — including “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” star Donny Osmond — to sing along.
Museums and opera houses found ways to make their art available to the public. Josh Groban sang in his shower. Disney offered a family singalong to help parents entertain restless children, and then followed it up with a holiday singalong later in the year.
Despite closed restaurants, people weren’t left bereft of delicious food, either. Companies released cherished recipes for their famous treats so that people could make them in their own kitchens. Disney showed us how to make Dole Whip and churros. McDonald’s revealed the secrets of the Egg McMuffin. Ikea shared its recipe for Swedish Meatballs, and Ben & Jerry’s posted instructions for making chocolate chip cookie dough.
A lot of people made masks (and wore them)
The early days of the pandemic were marked by worries over the availability of personal protective equipment used by health care workers to reduce the spread of disease. And when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending mask-wearing for the general public, many wondered how both health care workers and individuals could get the masks they needed amid production shortages.
It didn’t take long for production to ramp up.
In April, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quickly put together mask-sewing kits and sent out a call for individuals with sewing skills to pick them up and complete them. Within 62 hours, 10,000 Utah volunteers had picked up every kit available in the first round. A week later, around 1 million completed masks were brought back, and more kits were distributed. In the end, more than 50,000 volunteers in Utah and Idaho produced 5 million masks, 100,000 face shields and nearly 100,000 reusable gowns through Project Protect.
Countless people who knew their way around a sewing machine made reusable cloth masks for their friends and family members. Businesses pivoted from making snorkels and jewelry and used their equipment to make PPE instead. A Utah County tech company used 3D printers to make masks for first responders, and more tech companies joined forces to procure medical supplies from around the world. Universities, jail inmates, and Beehive Clothing pitched in, too.
And people weren’t just sewing masks. They were also wearing them. Despite many public conversations focusing on those who refused to wear masks, the CDC reported that most Americans have been wearing them since spring, according to The New York Times.
The triumphant launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule
In May, history was made when SpaceX became Earth’s first private company to launch astronauts into space. Calling it “a dream come true,” visionary Elon Musk watched his space company’s Dragon Crew capsule, perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket and manned by NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, launch from the same pad Apollo crews used to reach the moon decades before.
The launch, televised and livestreamed to the delight of millions, went off without a hitch, and days later the SpaceX Crew Dragon safely docked with the International Space Station for a two-month stay.
As the mission commenced amid a backdrop of fear and uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic and racial unrest over the death of George Floyd, Vice President Mike Pence said of the mission, “I believe with all my heart that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s,” while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “This is everything that America has to offer in its purest form.”
The mission ended on a happy note when the Dragon capsule splashed down into the Gulf of Mexico and astronauts Hurley and Behnken were reunited with their wives and young sons. In November, a repeat performance was given when SpaceX Dragon 2, with a crew of four, was sent up into space — bringing with them a plush Baby Yoda from the hit show “The Mandalorian” — and made it to the ISS safe and sound.
The rise of work from home
As the importance of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic became clear, many employers took a leap of faith and sent their employees to work from home. A measure intended to slow the spread of a contagious virus ended up bringing other benefits, too.
For one thing, the skies became clearer. With far fewer people on the road for daily commutes, air pollution, especially in urban areas, was visibly reduced. In the Salt Lake Valley, statistics for March showed that fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, was down 59%. Oxides of nitrogen and carbon dioxide went down, too.
The move to remote work made employees happier, as they reported in surveys that they’d like to continue the practice even after the pandemic subsides. Working from home provided flexibility and helped workers better manage a work-life balance, reducing stress.
Experts reported that work-from-home options benefit working mothers in particular, helping them navigate the conflicting responsibilities of caring for their children while also providing for them.
“I think telecommuting can be an equalizer for a lot of reasons,” said Bradford Bell, director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University.
Political opponents calling for civility in politics
I’m not sure this has ever been done before...but as our national political dialogue continues to decline, my opponent @PetersonUtah and I decided to try something different. We can disagree without hating each other. Let’s make Utah an example to the nation. #StandUnited #utpol pic.twitter.com/Tkr2sDCYTB— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) October 20, 2020
In a year marked by a contentious presidential election, racial unrest, historic mistrust in institutions, and rancorous disagreements over how the government should handle the pandemic, many Americans despaired over the deep divisions opening up between them along partisan lines.
But even in that atmosphere, there were points of light. In Utah, two opposing candidates for governor, Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson, appeared together in a public service announcement, not to sling mud at each other but to plead for civility in politics.
“We can disagree without hating each other,” Cox tweeted as he shared the video. “Let’s make Utah an example to the nation.”
Peterson told CNN host Don Lemon, “Most Americans are yearning for some sense of normalcy. To see two candidates who stridently disagree with each other about policy come together to try to have a positive message about civility and respect for our democratic institutions is refreshing for people.”
The message clearly struck a chord, as it was shared and liked tens of thousands of times on social media.
Other influential public voices, too, called for listening to each other respectfully and treating others with kindness — like civil rights leader John Lewis, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, all of whom died this year and were praised for their across-the-aisles friendships.
‘Love one another’: A time for racial healing
Racial unrest rose to a fever pitch in the summer of this year, as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans during interactions with police provoked outrage and spurred demonstrations across the nation and other countries around the globe. Uncomfortable conversations about racism, discrimination, police violence, crime and injustice were sparked. Some protests were peaceful. Others spilled over into destruction of property and even violence.
But the morning after, other crowds of people showed up: Volunteers gathered to clean up graffiti, including in Salt Lake City, where Mayor Erin Mendenhall praised police for their restrained response.
Many protest leaders urged those in attendance to keep demonstrations peaceful. Lex Scott, founder of the Utah Black Lives Matter chapter, told attendees of a June rally: “If you came here to be violent or destroy property, we would like you to leave. That has never been what this movement is about.”
State legislatures changed laws regarding methods police officers can use to restrain suspects, and police agencies reached out to the Black community with compassion.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown spoke during Calvary Baptist Church’s virtual worship service and recounted the commandment of Jesus Christ to his followers to “love one another,” telling the congregation with emotion: “I love you, my brothers and sisters, and the women and men of the Salt Lake City Police Department stand with you in solidarity and we love you.”
Leaders of the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints together penned an editorial denouncing violence and called for an end to racism.
“It is past time for every one of us to elevate our conversations above divisive and polarizing rhetoric,” they wrote. “Treating others with respect matters. Treating each other as sons and daughters of God matters.”
Later in the year, an old racial wound was further healed when the church partnered with the “Black 14,” a group of Black football players for the University of Wyoming who were kicked off the team when they considered wearing black armbands during a game with Brigham Young University to protest a Latter-day Saint priesthood policy, later changed in June 1978. (The University of Wyoming formally apologized for the action in 2019.)
The church and the Black 14 teamed up to bring nine truckloads of food worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to food pantries in eight states across the country in November, feeding families and students struggling from the effects of the pandemic shutdowns.
“The Black 14 always wanted to make something useful out of the incident in 1969,” said Mel Hamilton, who had been a starting offensive lineman on the team. “We didn’t want to take on a bitter and negative connotation. We wanted our legacy to be more than a confrontation. We wanted to do something to improve the look of our legacy by helping other people.”
Families were strengthened
Some may have expected that the stress induced by the pandemic and the associated upheavals would have wreaked havoc in families. But the sixth annual American Family Survey revealed that many families had actually been strengthened amid the trials.
One couple reported they began taking daily walks with their children and were able to refocus on exercising, sleeping, eating well and generally enjoying life. Over half the respondents said they now appreciate their partner more. More families said they were able to eat dinner together every day, and 32% reported less than average tension in their household.
Author and business strategist Greg McKeown suggested that the pandemic might be seen, not as the start of a depression or recession, but as “the Great Reset” — a time in which people evaluated their lives, identified the need for change, and made it happen.
“I think there may be, for anyone who pays attention, an opportunity for an upgrade in our sense of what matters,” he said.
One mother realized getting her hair and nails done regularly wasn’t as important as she thought, and another reported that the pandemic led her to reevaluate her priorities, from how much time she spent at work to the number of trips she took to the grocery store.
“It’s been interesting to reprocess all the pathways of what you’ve been doing,” she said.
A coronavirus vaccine developed in record time
As the pandemic spread across the globe and devastated lives and economies, many pinned their hopes on the possibility of developing a vaccine quickly in order to save lives and allow daily life to return to normal. It was not clear that such a task could be accomplished in a timely manner. Many vaccines take years to develop, and this time one was needed for a newly discovered virus which was not yet fully understood.
But scientists and governments sprang into action nonetheless.
Operation Warp Speed, funded by the coronavirus relief CARES Act to the tune of $10 billion, provided funding to private pharmaceutical companies with an ambitious goal to “produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines with the initial doses available by January 2021.”
The program took the unusual step of providing funding for manufacturing vaccines at an industrial scale before their approval. It was a financial risk that considerably shortened the timeline for delivery, without skipping safety protocols.
Eight companies signed on to tackle the problem, and in May, President Donald Trump tweeted that it looked “very promising” that a COVID-19 vaccine would be available by the end of the year.
Many were skeptical. One researcher at Texas Tech University, who had been working for decades to develop a vaccine for schistosomiasis, said this of the chances of getting everything into place for a COVID-19 vaccine in 12 to 18 months: “If it happens, it will be a miracle.”
“Miracle” was exactly the word used by Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox seven months later, speaking at a Dec. 10 news conference just days before a University of Utah nurse became the first in Utah to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“This really is the miracle we’ve all been praying for and hoping for,” Cox said. Later, he tweeted: “God bless everyone who made this miracle happen!”
Russell Findlay, pharmaceutical supply manager at University of Utah Hospital, didn’t shy away from the word, either.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle — it’s a remarkably effective vaccine,” he said, adding that the development and innovation that led to the vaccine is “remarkable.”
“Vaccines often take years to develop,” Findlay said. “It’s a quantum leap in vaccine technology.”
Two versions of the vaccine, developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have been approved by the FDA, and both reported a high rate of efficacy during their trial phases. Moderna was a recipient of Operation Warp Speed funding, while Pfizer-BioNTech was not.
Over 30,000 vaccines have been administered in Utah as of Dec. 31. Health care workers, long-term care facilities and other high-risk groups are prioritized, and Moncef Slaoui, the top scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, has said the United States could see a decrease in COVID-19 deaths by January, thanks to the vaccine.
It will take time, but eventually the vaccine will become available to the general public — perhaps in April, for Utahns — with Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, estimating there may be “confidence that a vast majority of Utahns have taken the vaccine and we can rely on herd immunity” by late summer.
As Cox put it, there is now “a light at the end of the tunnel.”