Back where we began

Published December 23, 2021

By Tom Campbell

Over the past few days it has felt like we were ending 2021 where we started it, in the throes of a spiking pandemic. As we toasted in this New Year, we were eager to receive the vaccine that would help stem COVID-19. Never did we imagine there would be friends, neighbors and even family who would refuse to get the shot that would help both them and us collectively speed the return to our normal lives. It was just as unbelievable as the refusal of the former president to accept the results of November’s elections.
Then January 6th happened, a date etched in the memory of our nation like Pearl Harbor Day on December 7th and the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. We watched unbelieving as Americans stormed our Capitol, desecrating a symbol of our Republic. It was an omen for the disquiet ahead.
Our state’s economic recovery was gaining strength, state coffers were fuller than anyone could remember, and we were hopeful that when our legislature convened in mid-January they would address longstanding infrastructure, education and healthcare issues. We heard pledges of a new cooperation between legislative leaders and newly re-elected governor Roy Cooper, especially in passing a state budget, something not accomplished since 2018. They finally did get a budget, but not until mid-November, four and a half months after the state’s new fiscal year began. The co-operation never materialized as hoped; neither did optimistic predictions of accomplishments. Taxpayers shell out $850,000 per month for the legislative operations and, as year ends, lawmakers still haven’t adjourned a session that, like the virus, seems constantly with us.
We knew 2019 and 2020 had been bad; this year we learned just how disastrous they were. Violent crime rose dramatically. Census data revealed 1 in 3 North Carolinians reported feelings of anxiety or depression. Youth suicides doubled and a representative sample of 3,000 NC high school students reported 18.9 percent had seriously considered suicide. But most damaging was effectively losing a school academic year. 53 percent of students in grades three through eight were graded “not proficient” in grade level reading skills. 2019 End of grade tests revealed more than 50 percent failed math 1, math 3, biology and/or English exams. Just this week it was learned 1 in 6 students failed to be promoted from the pivotal ninth grade, a predictor of future high school graduation rates.
Even amidst the unrest, the numbers of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations started declining. We celebrated July 4th, almost euphoric, as masks requirements were relaxed, restaurants and stores reopened, and life appeared returning to normal.
Another unusual phenomenon occurred. Employers started inviting workers to return to their jobs but many employees, who had readjusted their lives to include such things as a walk, leisurely meals and time with family members declined the invitation. Critics placed the blame on too-rich unemployment benefits or laziness. They were wrong.
Months later we finally acknowledged being in the midst of a worker revolution, where employees were not willing to let employers dictate all the terms of a job. Higher wages ensued for many jobs, but still there are many vacancies.
The Delta variant landed a stomach punch in late summer. Fewer than two-thirds of North Carolina adults were fully vaccinated, accelerating the spread. Those vaccinated and later boosted accepted there would be no return to pre-covid days soon. Travel increased, ballgames and concerts were crowded and churches reopened as we adjusted to a new norm.
This holiday season people were so eager to find hope and joy that homes were more decorated than we ever remember, with lights aplenty outlining houses and trees and blowup characters adorning lawns. You couldn’t help but feel cheer as you drove at night. Then we heard a new term: omicron. This variant spreads more rapidly but is not thought as deadly, especially to those vaccinated and boosted. Almost overnight we experienced an explosion of new cases and hospitals filling.
We come to year’s end, almost back where we started 2021. We aren’t ashamed to report feeling shellshocked - we’ve experienced so many ups and downs this year. But we are, at heart, an optimistic and resilient people, so we dare look ahead to a better 2022.
Extend a hand and warm greeting to those you encounter. Contribute your time and/or money to a church or favorite charity and demonstrate more patience in restaurants and stores trying to serve with fewer workers. Above all, search for the peace this season promises.