The consensus is that 2020 has been “the worst.” But there is reason to look back at this year and find the unexpected silver linings of quarantine, particularly when it comes to how we connect with other people.
None of these benefits compare with the death and suffering and misery of a terrible year, but here’s a list of the small wins that we can hold onto and nurture as we finally shake the dust of 2020 from our feet.
We could roll over and log into work. Zoom fatigue is real, but online work shouldn’t be treated as an entirely temporary substitute for the office. Many disability advocates have been asking employers for years to offer remote work as an option for jobs that can be done that way. The pandemic was proof that some people really do benefit from working from home, and can be just as productive when they do.
“If your employees are able to be at home and they want to be at home, let them,” says Vilissa Thompson, a disability rights advocate and founder of Ramp Your Voice. While working at home can be really taxing for some, others—whether because of disability, family needs, or community needs—find it easier and more comfortable than working from an office. Thompson worries that companies will be too eager to rush everyone back into the office as vaccines become more widely available. “You really can’t say that certain things don’t work anymore if it’s remote,” she says. “You’ve seen it work.”
This applies to school and professional gatherings as well, says Thompson. Students who have asked universities for options to attend classes remotely now know that schools are set up for just that. And virtual conferences are more accessible in a variety of ways, including financially: lower entry cost, no hotel bill, no travel.
Live video captioning became more of a norm. Getting a video captioned used to be rare. Even when it was done, such as on YouTube’s closed-captioning option, the result was often nonsensical. Add masks and video chats, and those who are hard of hearing or deaf found understanding their peers next to impossible. The pandemic made the need for live captioning far more urgent, and startups like Ava, along with bigger platforms like Zoom and Microsoft, incorporated live video captioning that was often editable to improve readability.
Most notably, Instagram and other social platforms began incorporating captioning to allow people with hearing difficulties to understand pre-recorded videos. Even hearing folks could benefit, with archivable, searchable text that proved useful for work. That’s not to say the problem is totally solved; Ava’s founder, Thibault Duchemin, says that while immense strides have been made, a lot of work still has to be done, particularly with live video: “As a deaf or hard-of-hearing person right now, if I watch TV, it is captioned by professionals, but what is the difference with a social media livestream of an important event?”
The real world sucked, so we got lost in virtual worlds. Hi. Abby here, one of the authors of this piece. The last time I felt joy was a few weeks ago, in a game of Among Us with a group of random strangers. Among Us is a bit like the board game Secret Hitler or the party game Mafia, but online. You’re either a crewmate or an impostor, and no one else knows. Crewmates complete tasks. Impostors kill crewmates. Crewmates win by finishing tasks, or identifying and ejecting all the impostors before you’re outnumbered. Anyway, in this game, we changed the settings to ensure maximum chaos: Three impostors, which is a lot of impostors. One task for each crewmate. It was fast-paced mayhem and I caught myself laughing, hard, as if I were Outside with Friends.
Video games were already a huge industry before the pandemic. So yes, of course it’s possible to have fun online in a game. But the pandemic prompted more people to figure this out, and find ways to connect with friends and strangers in virtual spaces. People processed their grief in Animal Crossing, threw Jackbox party nights, and created fun nightmare games in Among Us. It would be nice if these moments remained part of life for more of us.
Dating wasn’t superficial. Just last year, swiping culture was alive and well. The pandemic made the one-night stand an artifact of the Before Times and created a dilemma for the world’s singletons, forcing them to connect online and rethink dating: Google forms were used to create ad hoc matchmaking services, video dating spread, and sales of sex toys spiked. Of course, there’s nothing like meeting a person and getting a vibe check in real life to see how you match; presenting an idealized version of our pandemic selves often led to flat meetings in person when lockdown restrictions eased.
Mail-in ballots made it easier—and safer—to vote. Although mail-in voting long predates the pandemic, the 2020 elections expanded access to it as Americans took advantage in vast numbers. As our colleague Patrick Howell O’Neill wrote earlier in December, that expansion in turn made this election one of the most secure ever. “Stretching out voting so that officials have a week or even a month to deal with it means the severity of any problem—whether it’s a technical glitch or a malicious attack—is greatly reduced,” he wrote.
A lot of people wash their hands now! Turns out most of us didn’t know how to wash our hands. In the early days of the pandemic, when not much was known about how the coronavirus was spread, public health officials like those at the CDC emphasized 20 seconds of vigorous and thorough washing, which led to countless memes and people muttering “Happy birthday” during the darkest months of the year on repeat to make sure their hands were clean.
Remember when we grabbed subway poles, touched grocery carts, and swiped other public surfaces before touching our faces without a second thought? Yeah, let’s not do that again.
Shorter commutes meant the environment could breathe a little. Not catching the train or guzzling gas while in traffic led to some tangible effects for the environment. By April, carbon dioxide emissions were down 17%. Previously polluted cities in China and India saw smog lift. Experts suggested that the impact on emissions was equivalent to removing 192,000 cars from the road. Research published in the journal Science in July also suggested that the world’s collective pause allowed scientists to listen to subtle seismic shifts that were otherwise impossible to hear. A quieter, cleaner world doesn’t mean we’re in the clear with global warming—and these gains almost certainly won’t last once we leave the pandemic behind. But it shows what drastic action on climate can achieve.
Gather ’round the family dinner table. Before the pandemic, between 30% and 40% of families typically shared a meal together, according to research done by Anne Fishel, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard University and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project. Now? Stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and work or school from home have made mealtimes precious times to reconnect. “Seventy percent of families are cooking more, 60% of families are making meals from scratch, 50% of them are involving kids, and there are 55% more family meals overall,” she says, citing research done by Canada’s Guelph University.
Having a meal at the same table and the same time as the rest of your household might seem like a nice tradition and not much else, but Fishel says there are some valuable effects.
“Families who have regular family dinner report lower rates of substance abuse and eating disorders, anxiety, and depression,” she says. “There’s more resilience and higher self-esteem, too”—two things almost everyone could use right now as we plow through another coronavirus surge and into the coming year.