Happy New Year: three ways you can contribute to a better 2021 and beyond

January 4, 2021 12:01 am

(Getty Images)

The tendency is to just dismiss 2020 by saying it sucked (it did) and bidding it good riddance. We’d like to toss it out like last night’s fish dinner and move on.

It’s not that easy. Yes, 2020 was brutal and painful. We’re going to grieve what we lost, and the anguish won’t vanish in the golden glow of a fresh calendar.

During the past 10 months within the United States alone, the coronavirus death toll has exceeded 140 Pearl Harbors or a hundred 9/11s; it is already nine times greater than all U.S. traffic deaths in the 12 months of 2019 and, by the end of this month, will exceed the number of Americans killed in the four years of World War II.

The human sorrow isn’t limited to the deaths and critical illnesses that have maxed out our hospital beds, stretched the world’s finest corps of medical professionals to its breaking point, turned nursing homes into charnel houses and pressed refrigerator trucks into use makeshift morgues — twice!

The mourning extends to business closures that have impoverished millions of Americans, devouring their savings, leaving record numbers unemployed and making their future too dark and hopeless to contemplate. Not surprisingly, suicides are also up.

It also covers a summer of racial turmoil, unleashed by a Minneapolis policeman’s casual curbside killing of a subdued and handcuffed George Floyd, and a still-unresolved American reckoning over 400 years of inequity for Black people.

The pains of 2020 are still very much with us and, the experts say, will be for most if not all of 2021.

The natural upsurge in infections that occurs with pandemics in the cold, dark months of winter is going to be supercharged by Americans’ failure to heed the Centers for Disease Control’s plea not to travel over the Christmas holidays. By the millions, Americans defied biology and common sense to commingle in airports and airplanes — ideal conditions for this highly virulent and deadly pathogen — and then go visit their susceptible, elderly kin. The ghastly corpse count over the next few weeks will be even more rueful because of the knowledge that it was avoidable.

The clear bright spot of 2020 was the triumph of medical science in condensing into a few months the creation and deployment of a safe and effective vaccine that, until now, would have required years.

While Operation Warp Speed fell ridiculously short of its goal of dispensing 20 million vaccine doses by the end of 2020, the solution is in hand and only logistical hurdles remain. Slowly, the grip the coronavirus has held on our bodies, our economy and our society will loosen.

How well we rebound and whether the new normal is better than the pre-pandemic one is up to us. Here are three ideas for contributing to a better Virginia and America.


Mention Dr. Anthony Fauci anywhere and you’ll get an instant reaction and realization of who he is. The same goes for Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell. Love them or hate them, you know the big national players.

But how many can name the county supervisor who represents your district? Or the president of your school board? Or your member of the House of Delegates?

Few outside the politically connected could, and that’s a shame because those are the elected officials most likely to take your phone call, to know your neighborhood and to hear you out (and help you out) when you have a concern.

The divisive past four years have aroused remarkable levels of energy and activism in people who previously had little interest even in voting. That’s why the 2018 off-year election and last year’s presidential race set records for voter participation. As important as the ballot is, civic engagement need not begin and end there.

If you believe, achieve — join a cause you support or find a cause and rally others around it. Knock on doors for a candidate, or for a referendum, or even for a neighborhood watch initiative. Take to the street to peacefully protest injustice or demand change. Respectfully speak your piece at a city council meeting. Or, if you really want to change things for the better, run for office yourself.

What we’ve lost over nearly one quarter of a millennium of the Great American Experiment (and appear to be on the cusp of rediscovering) is the fact that it was never built to be a spectator event. Imperfect and contentious as it may be, it was engineered to be participatory, and it works best when it is.


This was a lonely holiday. Our kids, all grown, thankfully — and responsibly — stayed in their homes far away.

Oh, there was the socially distanced drive-in Christmas Eve church service — a moving annual moment even if we were in our cars listening via low-power FM signal to the songs, Scriptures and sermon. But there was an emptiness that I could not identify until my wife crystallized it.

“We could be out there helping other people right now. And we’re not,” she said as tears brimmed in her eyes.

That was it exactly. Perfectly. Simply.

There was nothing we needed, no gift that could salve the yearning. But there was need all around — right in our own neighborhood — and we had watched it accumulate in the wreckage that 2020 wrought.

There isn’t much you can do to alleviate the privations and grief of others at Christmas if you haven’t gotten started much earlier, but there is nothing stopping me from doing it through this new year. I am looking for a way to give because it is not only essential in this time of profound hardship, it can uplift our communities even as it fills a longing in our souls.

There are organizations out there that find shelter for the homeless, that feed the hungry, that look in on the infirm and homebound, that help comfort the afflicted, advocate for the downtrodden and find justice for those who’ve been denied it. I can’t save the world, but maybe I can help with a little corner of it. You can, too. My contact information is at the bottom of this column.


There are people near you right now huddled under roofs that they rightfully fear won’t be over their heads much longer. Through no fault of their own, they’ve lost jobs and businesses that were highly vulnerable to the pandemic: retailing, restaurants, venues like movie theaters and gyms.

The overwhelming majority of those business closures and job losses were local, family-owned companies.

It may be too late for some, but there’s still time to invest in your community’s indigenous enterprises. Those that remain open have found some way to adapt through online innovation, curbside and touchless pickup, mail and home delivery, or services ranging from accounting to tutoring done mostly if not altogether virtually.

True, a night out absent the “out” isn’t as much fun, but picking up a gourmet meal, ordered and paid for wholly online and safely handed over in drive-through fashion from that same delightful café you frequented a year ago is still a treat. It’s even better for those toiling inside to keep their livelihood solvent through the lean times so it can flourish when the contagion is no longer a threat, pent-up demand is unleashed, and Main Street comes roaring back.

But the key is keeping it local. Your neighborhood hardware store, apothecary, barber shop, cobbler, computer repair center, bookseller, tailor, eatery, CPA or boutique can usually find what you need and do it with a level of customer focus and direct accountability that the Walmarts and Amazons can’t match. Besides, every dollar spent with a locally owned business remains local and creates local jobs.

Oh, and don’t forget to tip.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]