So, it is almost over. 2020 will be in our rearview mirror and out the door. Dear 2020, when you leave please make sure that the door does not hit in the ass or if it does then the door does not get damaged. We really do not care about you, do we? Here is a Tequila 1941 shot and good riddance! When 2020 was coming around I was all hopeful about a bright New Year and the culmination of a decade. I remember climbing a 14,000 feet mountain peak to celebrate the New Year with my dogs. They were unhappy about the cold, snow, wind and the darkness. They were generally mad at me. I should have listened. But, noooooo, I had to celebrate! Look, what I got? Damn 2020! Year of the Plague, locust and an unhinged Fat Guy named Donald John Trump! As 2020 was coming to an end I lost my 22 year old dog Chiquita. I cried and cried and still am having a hard time letting her go. But, 2021 is almost here. Without jinxing things let me say I think 2021 will be a stellar year. Here are my reasons boys and girls.
Vaccines and more Vaccines: As the annus horribilis is coming to end we have many vaccines in the pipeline to combat the plague of COVID-19. There are some 54 different attempts at vaccines. Two vaccines made by Pfizer+bioNTech and Moderna have been approved by FDA in the USA and they are slowly getting onto the arms of people. Pfizer vaccine has also been approved by the EU and also the UK. Russia and China have had their vaccines since July but no one is standing in line to get those vaccines. In a typical authoritarian fashion these countries have not shared their testing data for independent reviews and nor have they actually finished the Phase 3 large scale clinical trials. So, for all practical purposes we have two tested and verified vaccines. The real good news is not the vaccine but the kind of vaccine and the methodology that made those vaccines. What National Institute of Health (NIH), Moderna, bioNtech and Pfizer has done is invented a whole new method of how to make vaccines. Before COVID all vaccines were a laborious process of getting a live virus, killing it and then using chicken eggs to germinate a weak form of the virus. That was then injected and everyone hoped and prayed that it worked. That is why vaccines take years to make and most do not get off the ground. The cost and risks are enormous. The new vaccines are known as mRNA vaccine, m for Messenger. As opposed to working with an actual virus the scientists determined the genetic sequence of the virus (the Chinese had the virus sequenced and on the web within ten days of the first case) and then attach a messenger molecule to the RNA. This simulates the virus in a human body in a weak form and generates the antibody response. Thus when the actual virus comes along the body’s defense mechanism knows what the virus looks like and attacks it. Poof, no more virus. That is why these new vaccines are 95% effective. However, the news gets even better. This mRNA development is not a one time thing. What NIH has done is built a platform where most of the actual data and genetic work is pre-done. When a new pathogen shows up they can plug and play like your Pandora song from a playlist and create a vaccine quite quickly. That is the magic. Humans will perfect the art of doing vaccine in 2021. Amen! More importantly the mRNA platform is now being used for targeted cancer treatment. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the Turkish descent founders of bioNtech, have been doing cancer research using messenger RNA for decades and they show great promise making cancer an old nightmare. So, 2021, come soon and be good to all of us.
Warp Speed: Those of us who are “Star Trek '' (no, not Star Wars, which is for a different set of gullible fools) fans know what Warp speed is. Those who do not know what that is here is a quick definition. In the sci-fi universe of "Star Trek," spaceships with warp drives can zoom past the normally impenetrable limit of light speed, or about 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) in a vacuum. The vaccine was developed under something called the Warp Speed. Our fat President wants to take credit for it. Well, we should probably give him the credit. This was a financial innovation dreamt up by the scientists at the NIH. They basically came up with a way to minimize risks for private companies for vaccine development. The idea is simple, prepay for development, production and distribution even if the vaccine is not successful. So, the government paid the innovating companies Billions of Dollars up front for vaccines that may or may not become reality. It seems risky to wager such vast sums of money but when you consider the Trillions of Dollars we lost to the pandemic the Billions seems trivial. Now, the Warp Speed concept needs to be deployed for actual delivery of the vaccines to people’s arms. This is happening in the US and UK. The basic rule is everyone gets the vaccine free and no one can be denied the vaccine. It needs to happen globally or the global herd immunity will be elusive. The rich countries, the world organizations need to underwrite the cost of vaccine distribution in poorer and developing countries not because of altruism but because of self-interest. It seems that the world is moving in that direction. After the initial frenzy is over, Warp Speed vaccinations may touch the world. 2021 may see the first time the rich countries try something meaningful on a global scale.
Kick Ass Recovery: The Covid-19 shock lopped off some 5.2% off the global growth. This is how The World Bank describes the shock, “The swift and massive shock of the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown measures to contain it have plunged the global economy into a severe contraction. According to World Bank forecasts, the global economy will shrink by 5.2% this year.1 That would represent the deepest recession since the Second World War, with the largest fraction of economies experiencing declines in per capita output since 1870”. We saw millions of people out of work, millions of people in advanced countries falling back into poverty, countries like Bangladesh saw its export driven economy almost stalling. We saw the migrant workers being sent back home from countries that employ them creating extra burden. In short, 2020 has been a year to cry about. But, the New Year promises to be a shining dawn. The pent up demand and easing of restrictions will spur economic activities on its own. On top of that, most governments are activating fiscal and monetary stimulus which will goose the economies, which in turn will accelerate aggregate demand thus activating the supply chain. There will be a virtuous cycle. Yes, I sound optimistic but I have reasons to be optimistic. There are signs of a kick ass recovery. We could see global growth tick back up to pre-2020 level in a very short order. In the US we are hopeful that the end of the lawless Trump Presidency will bring sober rational economic and social policies that will generate equitable growth and prosperity. Joe Biden has tapped some of the most experienced policy wonks in Finance and Economics for his cabinet. Hopefully, they will not be timid and halting like Obama. Time to be bold and 2021 is the year. 2020 taught us one thing above all, this planet of ours is fragile and needs constant tender loving care. Rapacious looting of people’s wealth, destruction of the environment is not sustainable and also destructive for all beings that call this planet home. Maybe. Just maybe we will have a recovery that will be more modulated towards human development and welfare and not just accumulation of money for the sake of accumulation of money. There are new modes of enhancing productivity of work. It is probably no longer necessary to go to an office every day for the vast majority of the office workers. Technology such as, Zoom, file sharing and real time editing is changing the way we work and play. I say Mazeltov!
Climate Front and Center: Finally, we may be ready to address the Climate crisis that has become an existential threat to all known lifeforms on Earth. We have abused the Earth knowingly and unknowingly. People have stuck their heads in the sand and kept repeating Climate Change is a hoax. Now, our inaction has turned climate change into a climate crisis. The fires in Australia, California, Africa, and Indonesia. The devastating floods around the world, constantly rising water in places like Miami all point to a crisis that we now must face. In order for the Earth to stay habitable we need to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2040. That is like right now! 2020 brought us some insights into climate issues. For the first time we saw a decline in air pollution. Using computer models to generate a COVID-free 2020 for comparison, NASA researchers found that since February of 2020, pandemic restrictions have reduced global nitrogen dioxide concentrations by nearly 20%. Nitrogen dioxide is an air pollutant that is primarily produced by the combustion of fossil fuels used by industry and transportation—both of which were significantly reduced during the height of the pandemic to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading. Now, as we enter 2021 there may be a way to reduce our carbon footprint. The US is going back into the Paris Accords, China has declared a unilateral goal of reducing carbon emissions, even places like India are giving lip service to climate emergency. The US is poised to invest some $2 Trillion in various climate friendly infrastructure which includes charging stations across the nation, solar and wind build up that will replace more and more of the fossil fuel based energy. States paused their plastic bans in 2020 because of the pandemic. Now, the cities and counties in the US are gearing up to ban plastic grocery bags and all other kinds of plastic. This is long overdue but 2021 will see a change so very rapid that it will be almost magical. Bangladesh can make a huge contribution to its bottom line and the environment by putting up substitutes like Jute that can alleviate the damages caused by plastic packaging. I think in 2021 there is a real possibility that humans will learn to respect Mother Nature and work with her as opposed to trying to conquer her and failing miserably at all fronts. As a Korean friend of mine says, we may actually learn to “Use Nature. Be Nature. Follow Nature”. Amen to all that.
Meeting friends again: 2020 put the kibosh on something that Bengalis love to do. The Adda! In the US the ritual of tailgate parties, game watching while guzzling down beer with chips, or going to the theaters and movies, all came to a halt. The simple act of going to a restaurant has become an act of courage and or political action in the US. Here we go to a restaurant to defy bans by the government and pick a fight with the local enforcers. We wear or not wear masks based on our political orientation and not because it is a good thing to do. We have poisoned the well of friendship, decency and rationality. My hope is that 2021 will bring it all back to us and humanity will be again on track to tackle the bigger issues of climate, equality and prosperity and not worry about masks and no masks. With the vaccines in place the venerable Addas will be back and we will be once again able to kill the Uzir, Nazirs with impunity and regale our friends with our achievements. We may even be able to kiss someone that we just met. That would be novel, no? Humans are social beings and a return to normalcy with our social selves in 2021 would itself be an act of great importance. I hope to visit Bangladesh in 2021, clean my parent’s graves, and eat some fuchkas and Peetas on the street. Maybe take a long walking trip from Dhaka to Sylhet through the villages. I had done that in early 1972 as a part of a ragtag group of boy soldiers from Sylhet to Dhaka but to do it again with my bent limbs will be something that would make 2021 a wondrous year.
So, here is to 2021. I know most people think life is measured by the numbers of breaths we take. But, I think life is measured by moments that take our breaths away. My friend Chiquita gave me many such moments. May 2021 be our friend and give us many moments that take our breaths away and beat the living daylight out of the miseries of 2020.
Kayes Ahmed is a Bangladeshi American serial entrepreneur, thinker and writer. He lives with his two dogs in Colorado and California