News & Politics

Was 2021 Worse Than 2020? A Debate.

America closed out 2020 in a  frenzy of good-riddance gestures. Surely, nothing could be worse than the year stolen by pandemic and riven by domestic hostility. Last December 31, the presidential election was over; the non-chaotic, pro-science side won; the vaccine was here.

Alas, the new year began with an attempted coup at the Capitol, and ends with an Omicron surge that evokes the worst days of March 2020. As for the year in between, there were highs and lows, but 2021 is now ending with a reasonable debate on whether it was actually worse than the year before. Some thoughts from our staff:

Team 2021

“2021 was clearly the worse year. At the end of 2020, there was a palpable sense of hope. The vaccines were on the horizon, the chaos was finally going to end. And, of course, for a time—the spring and early summer of 2021—it almost seemed like the crisis had ended, at least for the fully vaccinated. A year later, though, that pre–New Year’s hope has evaporated. Instead, a new form of the virus is scrambling holiday plans once again. The end-of-year feeling is gloom, dread. The only optimism I feel is rooted in my suspicion that the gloom we feel now will eventually seem as misguided as the optimism we felt last year at this time. That’s my hope, anyway.” —Luke Mullins, staff writer

“This year we got much of the relief we’d waited for since March 2020. And none of it made much of a difference. I visited Louisville in July and spent a glorious week as if the pandemic was finally in the rear-view mirror. Two weeks later, the CDC revised its mask guidance, and we all settled back into the Covid doldrums. Now I think the diminished way we’re living is probably just how life will be. So while I hated 2020 a lot, 2021 ground down my hope until it vanished.” —Andrew Beaujon, senior editor

“Ultimately, 2021 is worse. It’s like Groundhog Day gave way to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. The grueling repetitiveness of last year was one thing. But this year is false advertising. It’s not the final chapter! There’s still Friday the 13th Part V and VII coming, not to mention Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (which is not, in fact, even close to the final Friday). And the same presumed-dead thing (Covid-19, Trump) is coming back again and again.” —Anna Spiegel, food editor

“The dominant emotion of 2020 was ‘overwhelmed,’ a side effect of maneuvering the constant change and fast-moving news. But when the situation started to improve in 2021 (shout out to Johnson AND Johnson), I was surprised that hope wasn’t the most pervasive feeling. Yes, there were many, many happy reunions with family members that made this year special. But having the space to truly process the past year? It was heavier than I could have imagined. We went from hoping things would get better to knowing they would never be the same.” —Daniella Byck, assistant editor

Team Split the Difference

“2021 was better practically and worse psychologically. 2020 was a horror, socked by disease, haunted by fear for our lives and those of our loved ones, ravaged by economic chaos. I was lucky and privileged to have completed the year employed and healthy. There are a lot of people for whom lost jobs and lost family were the defining features of the year, and won’t be ameliorated by some of the fuzzier memories I carry from 2020: The solidarity I remember among neighbors and friends and colleagues (if not the nation at large), the burst of adrenaline that came with being a journalist amidst crisis, the unexpected time with my wife and kids. A summer of protest seemed to have led to at least a few positive changes; the chaotic election was done and democracy had prevailed. Yes, much of that good feeling had dissipated by the end the year. But this year, it curdled. In 2021, it turned out the presidential election wasn’t over, and may never be; the changes that followed the 2020 protests proved to be red meat for demagoguery. While schools had reopened and pink slips had slowed and you could go out for a meal or even a movie, the Delta variant took the wind out of the sails, not so much because of the cancelled plans as because it made clear that this thing may always be with us. And now it will be with us without any of the goodwill and gratitude that too-briefly arose in those early days. The effect, even before Omicron, was grinding and grim and exhausting. Oh, and even more people have died. ” —Michael Schaffer, editor

“The stress level of 2020 was higher by far (Covid, protests, violence, Trump, idiocy, idiocy, idiocy). Then again, I was extremely lucky to be able to weather it all in good physical health, with someone who is a barrel of laughs every day. I miss the communal spirit of last year: the upbeat signs, the fellow neighborhood walkers (so many fellow neighborhood walkers!), the creative ways people rallied entertainment and encouragement amid all the horror. And what can I say? I loved burrowing in. This year is ‘better’ in almost every objective way—except for the massive uncertainty part. It turns out 2021 was the answer to a trick question. So if you think I’m saying 2021 wins overall, you wouldn’t be incorrect. But I’m not sure I’d agree with you.” —Bill O’Sullivan, senior managing editor

Team 2020

“2020 was worse, of course. It’s hard not to answer this question on a personal level. I worried about losing what I thought was a pretty stable job. (My ill-conceived emergency backup plan: I would become a nanny! I also really did sell off my husband’s childhood Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure collection for extra cash on eBay, just in case.) But even more dreadful, I worried about who would take care of my daughter—six months old when the pandemic began—if my husband and I ended up in the ICU. And I’m one of the very lucky ones who did keep her and didn’t land in the hospital. So, so many dealt with so, so much worse. Both this year and last have been full of psychological (and actual) challenges, but 2020 was the true mind fuck. Plus, I haven’t had to sell off any 1980s action figures this year.” —Jessica Sidman, food editor

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“Without question I’d say 2020 was worse. First of all: Maintaining a full-time job without childcare is its own special category of things that can push one to the brink. Parents navigated the year with more roles and anxiety and significantly less support. But among other reasons: While the pandemic continues, we have more knowledge and tools than before. This year, we’ve been able to gather and socialize to varying degrees, whereas many last year, myself included, questioned every potential engagement, overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed by indecision, and fatigued by the constant state of risk analysis. Also: Didn’t 2020 bring us the word ‘doom-scrolling’? Navigating a pregnancy with evolving information and hospital/care policies and—while a safe and healthy delivery was a bright spot in the year!—spending maternity leave in what was essentially a quarantine were additional factors that contributed to my personal experience of the year. And yet I still look back to the year and feel lucky. Comparatively, 2021 was a year of thrills.” —Amy Moeller, weddings editor

“Look, it’s hard to argue in favor of a year that began with a deadly attack on the US Capitol. But putting aside the, um, coup attempt, there were a lot of reasons that 2021 felt better than 2020. Chief among them: There wasn’t a constant, looming fear of the unknown. While we spent much of 2020 dousing ourselves in hand sanitizer and Lysol-wiping groceries, the vaccine made it possible to reenter the world in 2021 without extreme guilt or anxiety. I saw my Seattle family for the first time in over a year, and remember that fleeting period last summer that actually felt normal? Even as the variants persist, we can find comfort in boosting and masking. Also, let’s not forget that in early January, Trump got kicked off Twitter—a win for both national security and our collective blood pressure. (Then, of course, he also got kicked out of the White House.) In conclusion: sweatpants. While it took some trial and error in 2020 to perfect the WFH wardrobe, by 2021, I had built up a decent collection of respectable, elastic-waisted options. And really, doesn’t comfort count for quite a lot these days?” —Marisa M. Kashino, senior editor

“Easy: 2020. NOW CAN SOMEBODY PLEASE JUST TIME-TRAVEL ME TO 2034 OR SOMETHING? Thanks!” —Kristen Hinman, articles editor

“2020 was worse than 2021 by far. After so much hoping and wishing for a year better than 2019, everyone had gotten their plans, hopes, and loved ones snatched away from them, not only by Covid, but by the inattentiveness of our government and racially charged attacks. I felt like there wasn’t a single moment of peace and calm because we were trying to figure out how to survive amid all of the chaos. While things aren’t great now and it seems that we may be going through another period of more remote life and restrictions, we now know how to deal with it and we had the privilege of enjoying some moments of normalcy. We now have vaccines that seem to be working, a new administration that seems to care a little bit more about taking care of its constituents, and some knowledge on how to navigate remote life. I would take 2021 over 2020 any day.” —Damare Baker, assistant editor