Here’s to our hangover year of 2021, with fear and hope to spare

December 30, 2021 3:33 am

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines were primate examples of the worst and best of 2021. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, foreground Spencer Platt/Getty Images, background Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As 2021 crams in its final thwacks on our collective psyche (thanks, omicron variant), I’m in the pensive mood that strikes columnists toward the end of each year. Mixed doesn’t begin to describe my feelings. On one hand, I can’t believe my good fortune to write for Kansas Reflector’s engaged readers. On the other hand, I wish I was doing it in more congenial times than these.

You could call this the hangover year. The biggest and worst stories from 2020 just kept on going. We might have wanted to hear less about a certain ex-president or novel coronavirus, but neither one was done with us.

Rather than unspooling a lengthy list of events (editor in chief Sherman Smith has been working on that), I’m going to highlight three big items from 2021. First of all, what scared me the most. Secondly, what gave me the most hope. And third, the biggest question that looms as we sail into a hopefully hangover-free 2022.


An infamous day

This past year proves once and for all that Donald Trump and his merry band of populist Republicans weren’t an easily manipulated bunch of maroons. They were deadly dangerous. They didn’t just threaten the life and health of U.S. senators and representatives but our entire system of democratic governance.

Jan. 6, 2021, will live in infamy, and not just because of the ragtag bunch of marauders who flooded the U.S. Capitol. It stained our nation’s history because so many elected Republicans went along with the former president’s outrageously false claims of election fraud.

Kansas’ U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall and U.S. Reps. Ron Estes, Tracey Mann and Jake LaTurner all supported the rebels’ cause through their votes challenging President Joe Biden’s victory. Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Sharice Davids stood apart for their recognition that the 2020 election was secure and accurate.

Closer to home, Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s hands were far from clean. He supported a Texas lawsuit that could have overturned the election, was associated with a group that promoted the Jan. 6 march and sent top aides to a September conference that included “war games” in case of a Biden win.

Every month that goes by without national outrage over the events of Jan. 6 worries me.

Every week that passes without criminal prosecution at the highest level unnerves me.

Every day that outraged members of both parties don’t unite to defend this country chills me.

U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door that was vandalized in the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


A medical achievement

The COVID 19-vaccines were — and are — a miracle. We could be forgiven for losing sight of that after the delta and omicron waves, but the vaccines offer robust protection against serious illness from the virus. If you get a booster shot (and you should) they even guard against infection from the wily omicron.

At the start of 2021, if you’ll recall, precious few of us had been vaccinated. In the past 12 months, many Kansans have stepped up.

You can look at the statistics a number of different ways, but today I’m choosing to do so with an optimistic eye. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million Kansans over the age of 5 have received at least one dose of vaccine. Fewer have completed the vaccine series or been boosted, but here’s to those who have decided to protect themselves and their communities.

Not convinced yet? New statistics from the CDC put the story in stark relief.

Per 100,000 people, unvaccinated folks see 451 cases. Vaccinated folks see 134 cases. Those with boosters? A mere 48 cases per 100,000. Vaccines practically eliminate the risk of death: Per 100,000 people, the unvaccinated see 6.1 deaths, while the vaccinated experience 0.5 deaths. For the boosted? Only 0.1 per 100,000.

Vaccines don’t even tell the whole story. We also have new antiviral therapies coming down the pipeline, which could cut the toll of illness even further. Doctors and researchers the world over have done us proud. Let’s be worthy of them.

Gavin Smits, 12, receives a first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Harborview Medical Center on May 13, 2021, in Seattle, Washington. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday authorized the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11. (David Ryder/Getty Images)


An urgent question

We’ve covered the best and worst of 2021. Taken together, they generate my biggest question from this blisteringly burdensome year.

Can we, as a people, unite for the common good?

That is, are Americans capable of working with one purpose for the good of the country? The ongoing petty squabbles of Jan. 6 suggest that not even an attempted coup has focused the minds of many Republicans. And voters who cast ballots for many of those same politicians aren’t willing to be vaccinated against the biggest threat to public health in the last 100 years.

The problem comes from a single side. As far as I can tell, progressives and liberals and moderate Democrats are all willing to pitch in and even make painful compromises if necessary. With a precious few exceptions — U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger among them — these optimistic folks have not been joined by partisans from the other camp.

Neither our greatest challenge nor our greatest achievement is partisan in any conventional sense. A would-be fascist fakeover should terrify conservatives. Effective treatments for a preventable illness should spur Republican celebration. Similarly, climate change and income inequality pose challenges no matter your party affiliation.

If the right refuses to rouse itself from dreams of Trump and join forces with those who differ with them politically but share a love for our country, the outlook for 2022 and beyond appears murky indeed.

You’ll want to stock up on hangover remedies.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.