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PILLAI: Challenges in 2020 will have lasting impact on American society

Column: Unboxed

2020 was marked by a set of challenges, both social and political, that as college students we had never seen before.  – Photo by Gov. Phil Murphy / Twitter

One year ago, I had a dubious understanding of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and not the slightest idea of what the months ahead would bring. Right before spring break in 2020, my roommate returned to our dorm and saw that everything in my half of the room — a stack of books, a floral blue tapestry, string lights, clothes, my nautical-themed decorations — had vanished.

I texted her to let her know that I had completely moved out before spring break, since my family had predicted that the University would not reopen fully in the spring semester. Hoping that their predictions were wrong, I waited for a University email announcing that everything would return to normal. That email still has not come. 

For many students, 2020 and 2021 unleashed a spectrum of unpredictable emotions. Disbelief, sorrow, anger, joy, pain, anxiety — we have experienced them all. There are many who keep telling us that once we achieve herd immunity, the world will resume rotating again and we will all forget the odd pandemic rituals we have acquired. But the world will never be the same. 

More than two million people around the world have died from COVID-19. Every life lost, no matter how young or how old, is equally devastating. For people who have lost their loved ones, their inability to properly grieve may leave long-lasting trauma.

During this morbid cycle, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that influenza activity has decreased in countries such as the U.S., South Africa and Chile. Precautions such as masks, social distancing and virtual environments may have contributed to this trend. 

We cannot continue living our lives the way we once did before 2020. In the future, we should promote the practice of wearing masks whenever someone is recovering from an illness and enforce more flexible school and work arrangements to destigmatize sickness. Americans tend to exalt those who have perfect attendance records or take the minimum amount of days off from work, but this thinking can damage people’s mental and physical health. 

2020 also sparked what many call a “racial reckoning,” a term that begs the following question: Who exactly is doing the reckoning?

After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude and many other Black people at the hands of the police or through other forms of racial violence, corporations and individuals started paying attention even though Black activists have been fighting for justice for decades.

There were genuine moments of solidarity in the aftermath of these murders, but there were also superficial diversity statements and social media posts that, yet again, catered to a non-Black audience. 

It is not too late to enact legislation that regulates the police, assists those impacted by police violence and offers reparations to Black people. It is not too late to change the way we teach about race and our nation’s history in schools. For too long, we have idolized the deeply imperfect founding fathers and taught only the white part of American history.

Drawing from Isabel Wilkerson’s thesis in "Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents," we have to say out loud that our government has institutionalized a brutal caste system with a multigenerational legacy and start taking action. 

Lastly, this year has exposed our democracy’s true fragility. At the very beginning of 2021, terrorists stormed the Capitol and Republican lawmakers are still trying to downplay this event. Many have juxtaposed the warlike military presence in Washington, D.C. during Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 with the tepid police response to the insurrection.

This contrast proved (for those who still refused to believe it) that Black people are more likely to face gas and guns from the police while white people can expect selfies and sidesteps. Moreover, the riots revealed the ugly debacle at the core of the Republican Party’s platform: It turns out that the party is not as pro-blue and pro-law-and-order as they proclaim to be. 

Congress’s sheer vulnerability, especially on such a pivotal day in the democratic process, was astounding. These terrorists could have murdered the top three individuals in line of succession to the presidency: the vice president, the Speaker of the House, and the president pro tempore of the Senate. It seems the plot of ABC’s "Designated Survivor" is not so far-fetched, after all. 

While some leaders may be content with dismantling the government, most Americans are not. Young people need to keep on creating grassroots campaigns and start running for office to ensure a more stable and equitable future. 

In the middle of this chaos, college students are trying to take their classes, figure out long-term career plans and simply survive. If there is one large takeaway from this past year, it is that grades and academic achievements do not matter as much as they used to, especially when inequities and diseases continue to ravage the planet. My priority has shifted from being a good student to being a good citizen of the world. 

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Fridays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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