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Looking back on 2021

Another year is wrapping up, and I thought I would spend a bit of time reflecting on the main takeaway of this year for me. As usual, it has to do with my book and the theme of increased polarization across the Western world, driven by politics and this year, public health. Before I get into that, this year has been filled with ups and downs for everyone. England's 6-month-long roadmap out of lockdown at the beginning of the year presented a lot of challenges for everybody's mental health - missed family, friends, and events put everyone's lives on hold once again. Then we tasted brief freedom before more threats emerged - more, it felt, from the government at that stage than from the virus. And yet I personally have had some real highlights as well. I travelled to Mexico and the US this year on a trip I may not have otherwise taken, and holed up in a beach rental in New Hampshire for 2 months enjoying a beautiful New England autumn and time with friends. I spent more time with my family this year than I have in a long time, and incredibly we've grown closer than ever. And I've managed to read a whole lot of books, too.

Alongside all the highs and lows, there is a lot that I'm going to take into next year - a year that will see me officially become an author (!) and will hopefully mark the beginning of getting life back to a sense of normality. I have tried to outline what I believe is the main lesson moving forward below, and I'd be interested to hear thoughts on this as well, so feel free to contact me and let me know.

As we're all (painfully) aware, the news this year has been dominated by coronavirus once again - from the initial vaccine rollout, to new variants, to border closures and re-openings, to third and potentially fourth vaccine rollouts. Where initially coronavirus seemed to unite a lot of people and countries (we'll all remember "we're all in this together"), it has become an increasingly fraught battle to remain that way. There have been two main battles: between "normal" people and "elites", and amongst the general population. First, I would wager that everyone in the UK (except those in attendance) was infuriated by the photographs of and videos about parties in Downing Street last Christmas and during the first lockdown, and there was anger earlier in the year at how Scots were encouraged to exercise extreme Covid caution in every day life while leaders were flown in from around the world for COP26 without issue. (Unofficial) photographs of maskless politicians not following social distancing guidelines at G7 in Cornwall received much the same reception, since those same politicians were issuing urgent mask and social distancing guidance to their constituents.

For the general population, factions emerged between those who wear a mask, wear a KN95 mask, and those who choose not to wear a mask, as well as those who chose to get the shot and those who didn't, regardless of age, risk factor or other reason. Of course, it was originally claimed that the Covid vaccines would halt transmission permanently and protect others. Then breakthrough cases started happening, and then we stopped calling them breakthrough cases because it was clear it could no longer feasibly be called a rare occurrence. Despite new information on transmission risk and emphasis on how shots protect you from illness, great news about the mild (for everybody) variant Omicron, those factions still remain. Yet now vaccinated includes boosted, and many are falling back into categories that preclude them from accessing many of life's pleasures if they don't see the need for a third jab.

All this is to highlight that this year has been a bit of a rollercoaster, and it has been polarizing in much the same way as Brexit was. Covid rules have fluctuated constantly, leaving citizens confused and frustrated. If the 'Remain' campaign was 'Project Fear', then the "doomsayers" of Covid who have failed to differentiate risk between the young and the elderly are surely worthy of the same title. Meanwhile, anyone suggesting other possibilities for how to deal with the virus is labelled "stupid," and slandered by the media. It all feels a tad familiar.

Brexit itself has of course continued to cause problems for politicians in the UK and the EU, but has been utterly overshadowed. We had supply-chain issues (like much of the world) that was briefly blamed on leaving the bloc, a shortage of workers in hospitality that was in part down to many foreign workers, quite understandably, leaving the UK after Brexit, as well as click-bait headlines about food shortages and "no turkeys at Christmas." And of course there are a lot of tangible issues for people's lives, for example many businesses are struggling to source materials from the EU now being sold at much higher prices. But our attention as a nation has been pulled away almost entirely, and I rarely find myself hearing or indeed instigating discussions about it as I once did.

I'm not sure this is a good thing either. In BrexLit I discuss the polarizing effects of the Brexit vote on the British public - those who voted Leave were cast into one category and were pitted against the Remainers, and vice versa. Which "side" you were on could seemingly determine a lot about you. According to popular derisive comments, to which I was not at all immune, Leave voters were all without fail xenophobic and Remainers were all posh city-dwellers or young people who didn't want to give up their Interrailing gap year. Of course, both descriptions were massively over-simplified and created more issues than they solved. We now have more divisions set on top of those, which do not fall across party lines or necessarily Brexit lines either. Is it perhaps time to just acknowledge that we are all individuals with a range of different views?

But of course, division sells. Vaccine passport systems, which have failed everywhere, are used as punitive measures rather than scientific ones, as Chicago's Mayor Lightfoot comments about making life "inconvenient" for people without vaccines made clear. They create a social and moral hierarchy which does nothing to entice those heavily skeptical to get a shot, while reinforcing superior belief systems upon those who chose to get them. Surely encouraging vaccination based on its merits alone would be a more effective message? Just like focusing on the benefits of EU membership might have been more effective for David Cameron and Remainers than lambasting Leave voters as idiots. (Flashback to Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" comment.)

I, for one, would like to see a less divided 2022. Perhaps we can find common ground elsewhere, or we could start treating each other like individuals rather than succumbing to the "us versus them" rhetoric. Rather than following the White House's lead and wishing each other "a winter of severe illness and death," or a British Christmas without pigs in blankets, maybe we can start truly attempting to understand, or at the very least listen to each other, and working with what we have to create the best possible opportunities for everybody. Maybe that's an absurdly naive hope, but as Rutger Bregman writes in his book (and my family's new bible) Humankind, living a life assuming that everybody means well is far more pleasant for everybody than assuming that those who don't think, or choose, or communicate in the same way as you do are monsters.

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