What a Difference a Year Makes

Photo: Dilok Klaisataporn/Getty Images

A year ago, I thought the health topic I’d lament most in 2020 would be wrangling insurance coverage for a spine MRI.

So you should totally trust me that our predictions for 2021 are spot-on.

Fortunately for you, they’re not really our predictions. They’re the predictions of Stanford faculty and alumni who are experts in everything from labor economics to musical theater to face-mask fashion. 

In some ways, the pandemic has provided an accelerant into the future, particularly with respect to virtualization. Sometimes it seems as though we’re dwelling in a simulacrum of real life as we attend classes, watch plays and order groceries on small, glowing screens. Some 42 percent of Americans were working from home in May, according to economics professor Nicholas Bloom, and we won’t all go back to the office five days a week. That, he and others say in our cover story, will change what we want, need and expect from our homes, our workplaces and the distance between them. 

In other ways, particularly with respect to our relationships, the pandemic has cleaved our lives into “before” and “after.” We’ll always remember the period when we couldn’t safely hug our parents, go to the movies or grab a bite with a friend. We’re changing our behavior, too, in ways that might stick. Touching our faces less. Using the word fomite in conversation. And figuring out how to communicate with one another from behind masks. (A hint from psychology professor Jeanne Tsai, ’91, who studies emotion and affect: We’ll learn to use, and pay better attention to, eyes, voice and body language.)

We didn’t ask our fortune-tellers to peer too far into the future—just around the bend. After all, last year at this time, COVID-19 had not been named. The largest protest in American history was in 2017. California’s biggest wildfire was half a million acres. And the 2020 U.S. election was 11 months away, but we’re not talking about that right now. As Summer Moore Batte, ’99, explains in her introduction, “for us—and this story—it’s November 1, 2020.”

As it is quite literally 4:53 p.m. on November 1 and we have to put this issue of Stanford to bed, I leave you with one final thought: On our back page, you’ll find an essay about a sea cucumber. It’s a tale of biology lab, a parable about adaptation and a reminder that, no matter what, we organisms are resilient.

Have a safe and happy New Year, and we’ll see you in 2021. 

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at kathyz@stanford.edu.