How do you write an end-of-year piece about a year like 2020? The usual year-in-review shtick of finding some unifying theme isn’t particularly useful when applied to a year in which history sped up dramatically, in which we not merely went through the looking glass but were propelled at a rate of knots.
Viruses and bacteria shape human history, and always have. The Spanish flu was merely an echo of early, more lethal and more transformative pandemics -- the Black Death wiping out half of Europe in the 14th century and ending feudalism, or diseases exterminating Indigenous populations as imperial Europe reached out to the rest of the world.
Our tendency to cluster together with our animals, and to trade with anyone we can find, makes us perfect logistics providers for germs. Neoliberal capitalism -- with global supply chains, insatiable exploitation of natural resources, precarious work, massive international travel and, in many countries, inadequately funded healthcare -- is the perfect vehicle for bacteria and viruses to spread in ways previous generations never had to fear.