Despite these testing times, American Thanksgiving (November 26) may be a useful moment to take stock. What should we, as a planet, give thanks for in a year that threw up the depressing new word “doomscrolling”?
It is true that 2020 has felt like a particularly bad year. It was roiled by two spreading crises, a global pandemic and growing turbulence as a result of deepening discontent with the way things are, in terms of social and economic inequality and environmental destabilisation wrought by climate change.
But there are some reasons to feel grateful. At least 10 reasons, as a matter of fact.
Everyone everywhere is washing their hands a lot more. Lockdowns have brought the sudden realisation to millions that there is an intrinsic joy and inestimable value in face-to-face contact with other human beings. Telemedicine is making health care more accessible.
Digitalisation is proceeding apace in almost every sector of the global economy. Multilateral trade deals are still being signed and with greater, more dogged determination. Coronavirus vaccines are on their way. Women and members of minority groups increasingly have a place at the top table.
There is talk of China and the US, the world’s two biggest economies, entering a new phase of “co-opetition” (co-operation + competition) rather than a nasty zero-sum battle for supremacy.
The 2015 Paris climate deal may soon be back at full complement with the US rejoining the pact. And the traditions, institutions and political values of the United States, the only country with a continuous democracy more than 200 years old, have held up in a deeply divisive election.
At least four of those items of good news are anchored in the ongoing US presidential transition. The long handover from Donald Trump’s administration to that of Joe Biden formally got under way this week, lifting spirits, the S&P 500, the Dow Jones industrial average and even oil prices.
This has as much to do with Mr Biden’s own moderate politics and measured words as with his first cabinet picks. The key choices for treasury secretary, homeland security, secretary of state, climate tsar and director of national intelligence have had a calming effect even as they inspire hopes for positive change.
Clearly, there is much to be thankful for even in 2020 but most of all with news on vaccine development
As treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, a respected economist and former chair of the Federal Reserve, will be the first woman to hold a job that has been dominated by men throughout its 231-year history.
She also has deep knowledge of the labour market, something that gives confidence as the incoming administration gets to grips with the difficult task of rebuilding a US economy battered by the pandemic and saddled with high unemployment.
Mr Biden’s other nominees also score high on the triple metric of competence, diversity and experience. And there are a lot of firsts in there. The new head of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, is a Cuban-born immigrant and the first Latino to be given the job of managing America’s immigration policies.
Avril Haines will be the first female director of national intelligence. As America’s first ever climate envoy, John Kerry will also be part of Mr Biden’s National Security Council, thereby signalling the new administration’s view of climate change as a real and urgent threat.
And finally, with Antony Blinken as secretary of state, America’s top diplomat will be a Paris-schooled foreign policy expert and internationalist, who recently reaffirmed a future Biden administration’s belief in “leadership, co-operation and democracy”.
With those words, Mr Blinken, a guitarist in his own rock band, is playing mood music that chimes with the hopes of many around the world.
The recent G20 summit of the world’s most powerful economies, hosted virtually by Saudi Arabia, highlighted the strength and expectations of multilateralism and the rules that have defined the global postwar order.
Other than Mr Trump, G20 leaders pledged to lead a global battle against the coronavirus crisis and to help poorer countries obtain vaccines and treatments, as well as debt relief.
The new dulcet tones being heard are apparent in other geopolitical spheres as well. Just days ago, Fu Ying, a senior Chinese government official and one of the highest-ranking women in the country, called for the Sino-American relationship to be refreshed.
Bemoaning “the politicisation of even people-to-people exchanges”, Ms Fu suggested a new way, “a relationship of co-opetition,” which would address each country’s specific concerns. There are indications that as president, Mr Biden may employ a different style and process from Mr Trump in his approach to China.
The overt and covert co-operative ambition and diversity of the US president-elect’s cabinet has already been foreshadowed elsewhere.
Earlier this month, New Zealand appointed its first indigenous female foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, a Maori who wears a distinctive traditional tattoo on her chin. And nearly half of New Zealand’s newly elected parliament is female, which offers a hopeful template for levelling up in terms of gender inequality.
Clearly, there is much to be thankful for even in 2020 but most of all with news on vaccine development.
When the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation in March, it was hard to imagine there would be a cure for Covid-19 by year-end. But three effective vaccines have emerged.
Hearteningly for lower-and middle-income countries, one of the vaccines is cheaper and easier to distribute than the others.
All three vaccines are spurring hopes for a global economic reopening of trade, economic activity and a shared communal life as we once knew it.
Despite the pandemic and political turbulence then, there is much to be grateful for. Perhaps the story is best told with brevity and factfulness. Something along the lines of the six-word story challenge supposedly issued to Ernest Hemingway.
There can be many worlds in one short sentence. A six-word take for Thanksgiving 2020 would embrace a sweeping view of the highs and lows of an extraordinary year. I offer two suggestions:
“Lockdowns kindle new lust for life.”
“It’s rough, but now nearly over?”
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a columnist for The National