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What we learned about California in 2020


The end of 2020 is very near to us. Finally.

While the year has been difficult and exhausting, it has also been enlightening.

In California – almost a nation unto itself, as Governor Gavin Newsom likes to say – the pandemic, protests, wildfires, and elections may not have exposed new cracks, but they have shed some light new on their depth and complexity.

So today, before we head into a 2021 which, as state officials said on Tuesday, is set to start as heartbreaking as 2020 ends, it’s a good time to think about what this year. really, undeniably singular taught us about California.

California’s gaping inequalities are not limited to housing.

While the cost of housing dictates where Californians can afford to live – and this, in turn, affects a host of other aspects of life, including access to health care and education and pollution exposure – 2020 showed with relief the bifurcation of state workers between those who can work from home and those who cannot.

And he made clear the potentially deadly consequences of this split, if workers are not protected.

In the first months of the pandemic, epidemiologists and other health experts quickly identified that the virus was hitting poorer, mostly Latin American communities, as their members were more likely to work in essential industries.

They sorted the packages in huge warehouses in the Inland Empire. They sat on buses to work on farms and returned to crowded houses. They stocked shelves and bought grocery store delivery services.

And even as the state established rules to make these workplaces safer, these regulations were applied unevenly. Investments in worker protective equipment have been too slow.

“Something about this pandemic,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, associate dean of population health and health equity at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, this summer. , “It seems difficult to us to be proactive.

Los Angeles is now at the center of the pandemic in the United States. The Central Valley and the Inner Empire are also in the midst of heavy surges. And all of these places have high concentrations of essential work and essential workers.

Climate change is not an abstract problem for the future. It is an urgent danger.

When lightning-triggered wildfires erupted across vast swathes of the state in August, experts said they signified a troubling start to the fire season.

Then the fires continued to burn. They burned hotter and faster, destroying homes and other buildings, killing people and injuring some of the state’s most beloved trees. They tore up more land than they ever had in recorded history, ultimately burning more than four million acres in California alone. One of those fires, the CZU Lightning Complex, which ignited on August 16, was only declared under control this week.

Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the California Air Resources Board, told me in September, “What I have observed is the worst fire season in California history.”

That doesn’t mean anything record-breaking heatwaves – scorching 130 degrees were recorded in Death Valley, Earth’s hottest temperature – or the dangerously bad air that forced millions of people indoors. summer.

The main takeaway, experts said, is that the worst effects of climate change have arrived faster than even many scientists expected. And that has vast implications for which parts of California are habitable, as well as how many resources to devote to managing fires, determining where crops will grow, and more.

The good news is that policymakers say this year has inspired them to pursue long-sought measures, such as increasing prescribed burning, and to turn to Indigenous communities for their expertise.

“I keep saying we get this ‘I told you so’ award,” Belinda Brown, a member of the Kosealekte Band from Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation in Northern California, told me earlier this day. year. “My prayer is that ignorance will no longer stop us.”

Californians, on the whole, support strengthening racial equity. What this really means is less clear.

In the deep blue of California, it is perhaps not surprising that large numbers of protesters have taken to the streets after the murder of George Floyd. California has been a major contributor to what may have been the biggest movement in the country’s history, Black Lives Matter.

An investigation by the Public Policy Institute of California found that most Californians support the movement and most Californians believe the criminal justice system is biased against African Americans.

But broad, state-wide efforts to tackle systemic racism have produced more mixed results. In the Legislature, an overhaul of policing practices that activists had hoped for did not materialize.

And while California voters have rejected an extension of sentences for certain crimes and restored the right to vote for those on parole, they have also firmly rejected what many lawmakers and policymakers hoped will be a slam dunk in 2020: a reversal. of the state’s long-standing ban on the affirmative. action in public university admissions and public procurement.

Despite the state’s diversity and vastness, this year has shown Californians to be connected – for better or for worse.

Over the past few months I have found myself reverting to something Dr. Bibbins-Domingo told me.

“What makes me optimistic is that people trying to fight the pandemic are realizing that we can’t just make good public health announcements,” she said in July. “There are big structural factors that make it difficult to control, and when things are difficult in one part of our community, the whole community can’t really do the things they want to do and open up.

This year has been a year of crisis, and our problems will not be resolved when the clock strikes at midnight on Thursday.

But the idea that the health of communities across the state is interconnected is something more and more Californians have been forced to think about in ways they may not have previously had.

If the people who choose the food we buy from grocery stores or ship the toilet paper we order from Amazon get sick, our company is not functioning.

Likewise, this year has shown how fires in one part of the state can send smoke for hundreds of miles. San Franciscans weren’t forced to leave their homes during this year’s fires, but their skies have always turned that apocalyptic orange.

So in 2021, I will be happy that Californians are united in having lived through 2020. And that we have learned a lot.

(This article is part of California today newsletter. Register to have it delivered to your inbox.)

And read the latest restrictions and guidelines. []

  • Track coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations across the state. [The New York Times]

  • Find out where the state is moving alternative care sites. []

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from UC Berkeley and has reported statewide, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she always wants to see more. Follow us here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley.

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