History never ends. But history textbooks must. As deadlines for new editions loom, every textbook writer lurches to a sudden stop. The last chapter always ends in uncertainty: unfinished and unresolved. I’ve experienced this many times myself, as a co-author on several history textbooks.
By now it seems clear that we are all living through a major turning point in history, one that will be studied for years to come. Future textbook authors will write entries on the year 2020, revise them, and revise them some more with each new edition. What follows is an attempt at—literally—a first draft of history: what I might write if I were wrapping up the last chapter of a high-school history textbook right now.
The Year 2020: Matters of Life and Breath
By any measure, the first three years of the Trump administration had been tumultuous. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller won convictions of several of the president’s associates for witness tampering, lying to Congress and the FBI, and bank fraud. (“A Witch Hunt,” the president complained.) Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine led the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to impeach him, though the Republican-controlled Senate failed to convict. (See Chapter 34.) Only twice before in American history had a president been impeached, and none had ever been convicted.
Yet these controversies and others were soon overshadowed by the events that unfolded in the first half of 2020. Within the space of a few months, the nation found itself drawn into two crises whose underlying causes threatened its health, wealth, and perhaps its very existence as a democratic republic.
The threat seemed distant at first. On the last day of 2019, officials in Wuhan, China, publicly reported that doctors were treating dozens of patients for pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, caused by an unknown virus. The first death, reported two weeks later, was that of a 61-year-old man. At that point, news headlines in America were focusing more on massive wildfires in Australia, which killed an estimated 1 billion animals, and several dozen people, and forced thousands of Australians to flee for their lives through heat, smoke, and flames.
By the end of January, Chinese officials had closed off the entire city of Wuhan, and the World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The disease, which scientists named COVID-19, was caused by a new strain of the coronavirus. Health experts called for immediate action. People had to be tested to see how far the virus had spread. They needed to “shelter in place”—essentially, stay home as much as humanly possible—to keep the infection from spreading. One particular danger was that people who showed no signs of illness could spread the infection.
For older people and those with existing health problems, COVID-19 could be ruthless. Most people experienced only mild symptoms, such as fever or a cough, or no symptoms at all. But others found themselves fighting for life as their lungs filled with fluids. Over time, doctors discovered that coronavirus infections could lead to complications such as stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure.
Scientists and some high officials in the Trump administration recognized by late January that the new disease was far more serious than the ordinary flu. They warned privately that COVID-19 could evolve into “a full-blown pandemic,” spreading across the globe and endangering “the lives of millions of Americans.” But President Trump downplayed the danger. “We have it totally under control,” he insisted. He restricted travel from China, but by then, COVID-19 had already spread to Europe and was making its way to the United States from there.
The virus hit many areas across the country hard, including Washington State, California, and Arizona. New York City had a particularly bad outbreak. By April, the city’s hospitals overflowed with coronavirus patients. “Walking made me lose my breath,” reported one man. “I was just gasping. It felt like drowning.” All over America, doctors, nurses, and paramedics worked day and night, wearing gowns, goggles, and face masks to keep from being infected. Some were forced to see patients with completely inadequate protection, because of a failure of hospitals and the government to secure needed supplies. Thousands upon thousands of ventilators were needed—machines used to supply oxygen through tubes inserted down patients’ throats. By late May, more than 100,000 Americans had died from the disease.
Defending against COVID-19 created economic hardships. As people sheltered in place, businesses and public services small and large were forced to close. Schools were among the first organizations to respond to the crisis by sending students home. Then restaurants, hair salons, and gyms shut down. So did theaters, sports arenas, and stadiums. Congress passed several bills providing $3 trillion in relief, to keep the economy from collapsing. Many Americans received a stimulus check for up to $1,200 and small businesses could apply for loans or grants that would allow them to keep their workers on the job.
Even so, millions of Americans found themselves without money to pay rent or buy groceries. Thousands of cars lined up at drive-through food banks. By the end of May, about a fifth of the nation’s workers were either unemployed or working part-time. The pandemic had produced the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Scientists worked overtime to develop a vaccine, but none was expected for at least a year. Meanwhile, Americans were divided about how best to confront the situation. Health experts insisted that people needed to continue sheltering in place until infection rates began to die down. They strongly recommended that face masks be worn in public spaces. President Trump and his allies wanted to restart the economy sooner rather than later, even if doing so risked a greater spread of infection. Trump refused to wear a mask in public.
On Memorial Day 2020, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, a second unexpected event shook the nation, one that was also marked by the death of a single person whose breath failed him.
George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a 6-foot-7-inch “gentle giant” and “a natural comedian,” according to one friend. He was killed by a police officer after being arrested, handcuffed, and pulled to the ground, where the officer pressed a knee onto his neck and held it there for nearly nine minutes, as three other officers stood by. Bystanders captured almost the entire sequence on video. Among Floyd’s last words was the phrase “I can’t breathe,” repeated over and over.
The next evening, protesters marched through Minneapolis. Within days, the protests spread to major cities across the country, including Memphis, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta, and New York City. Demonstrators wore masks and shared hand sanitizer, trying to stay safe from the coronavirus even as they gathered in large groups. While most protesters were peaceful, some set fires or vandalized police cruisers and stores. Police were out, and many of them responded with extreme force, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons, and rounding up protesters to arrest them in droves.
Those who marched were not merely angry over Floyd’s death; they were incensed that he was only one of many Black people killed by the police over the years. That pattern pointed to the second crisis: a problem of systemic racism—prejudice that was built into the police system itself, not just the deeds of a few bad actors. For that reason, protesters called for reform or even the abolition of the entire policing system.
When a large crowd of demonstrators gathered around the White House in Washington, the Secret Service ushered President Trump into an underground bunker. Worried about appearing weak, and determined to “dominate” the situation, Trump spoke several days later. “I am your president of law and order,” he declared. At the same time, police and D.C. National Guard units were ordered to clear peaceful protesters from an area facing the White House, so the president could walk to a church and be photographed holding a Bible. General James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, joined other military leaders in condemning the president for being divisive and using military force to disperse and control citizens.
In the two weeks that followed, the protests grew larger. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Perhaps more astonishing, similar demonstrations spread around the world—to France, Sweden, and Britain, as well as Germany, Kenya, and Australia. “I’ve never seen so many emotions expressed by so many people in my whole lifetime of protesting,” said one Australian. “I want to and need to be here,” commented a Denver marcher.
Both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice hit home because they seemed urgent, matters of life and death. “I can’t breathe,” chanted marchers, echoing George Floyd’s cry of pain. COVID-19, too, denied life’s breath. Though 2020 may have been the breaking point for America’s public-health system and the country’s institutionalized racism, these twin crises had been building over decades, if not longer.
The threat of a viral pandemic had surfaced several times in the 21st century, as diseases that originated in animals found new opportunities to infect humans. An earlier deadly outbreak of a coronavirus occurred in 2003, in a disease known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). None spread as widely as the virus that caused COVID-19 would later, but with each new strain, scientists warned that it was only a matter of time before a more serious pandemic struck. The Ebola virus of 2014 persuaded then-President Barack Obama to establish an Ebola task force and an emergency fund designed to prepare for future outbreaks. The Trump administration disbanded the global-health security team in 2018.
As for George Floyd, he was the latest of a long line of Black Americans who died at the hands of U.S. authorities. Slavery, Reconstruction, and decades of Jim Crow segregation had produced countless instances of deadly violence against Black people over the lifespan of the United States, in addition to police killings that were all too common. In the first half of 2020, two other such incidents captured the country’s attention: In February, in Glynn County, Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and shot by a former police officer and his son. In Louisville, Kentucky, Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was killed in her home during a police raid that targeted her residence in March. In Minneapolis, Floyd’s hometown, a New York Times study in 2020 showed that Black people made up 19 percent of the city’s population, but endured 58 percent of the incidents in which the police used force. And the new demonstrations resulted in dozens more instances of police misconduct against protesters recorded by cellphones, even as some officers joined protesters in marching and kneeling in prayer.
Like two waves rolling in from different directions to crash ashore together, racism and the pandemic each magnified the dangers of the other. COVID-19 killed Black Americans at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, for a number of reasons that can be linked to structural racism. For instance, the virus spread more easily in crowded living conditions—the kind of housing to which racial discrimination consigned many Black Americans. Overcrowding, unemployment, poverty, and the stress of discrimination all contributed to poorer health for Black people in the U.S. compared with white people, which also made them more at risk for COVID-19.
For those marching in search of a better world, despite their precautions, it was still hard to “socially distance” themselves from fellow protesters, even when they weren’t coughing from tear gas. Many police officers at the protests did not wear masks, increasing the risk of virus transmission. Still, marchers took the risk, and many public-health experts supported them in an open letter that prioritized “opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response.”
In a poignant demonstration of just how connected these two crises were, an autopsy revealed that George Floyd, though he had exhibited no symptoms, had been infected with COVID-19 when he died.
I can’t breathe … How would these twin crises of life and breath resolve themselves? Scientists feared that the number of COVID-19 infections might spike again, along with the number of deaths, as protesters marched and shops and restaurants reopened. Economists warned that hardships would worsen once government relief programs ran out by midsummer. Environmentalists worried that natural disasters, amplified by global warming, might add yet more crises to the mix. Hurricane season had started early; so had the fire season in the western United States. “How do you fight a wildfire in a pandemic?” one climate scientist asked. He understood that COVID-19 would spread more quickly among firefighters working closely together on the ground, as well as in crowded evacuation shelters provided for those fleeing the flames.
Could the nation’s political system survive these stresses? This was an election year, and it wasn’t clear how the outcome would be affected. Would President Trump’s resistance to addressing the pandemic and his animosity toward the protesters cost him reelection? Would the threat of COVID-19 make voting harder? Or would it push more citizens to the polls despite the risks?
History moves at its own unpredictable pace. Would Americans soon be marveling at how fleeting the events in the first half of 2020 had been, when compared with those of the second half? Would democratic societies survive, both at home and abroad? And if so, in what forms?
Whatever the shape of things to come, surely the answers would be global. Both the pandemic and the protests spanned the world at remarkable speed. In the 21st century, as never before, social media, travel, and international trade had made the world one. Now deadly threats to humankind and the environment placed that world in peril.